As Virginians await the final results of this year’s election, one fact has emerged as clear. The more extreme – or less mainstream – the Republican candidate for statewide office was, the worse he performed at the polls.
This fact can be simply established by listing the three main Republican candidates’ ideological stances and comparing it to their popular vote tally. The most extreme of the candidates was Lieutenant Governor nominee E.W. Jackson, who was so extreme the other candidates didn’t want to mention him during their campaigns and balked at being associated with him. He came in third on the list with 44.54 percent of the vote. The least extreme candidate, Mark Obenshain for Attorney General, did the best (49.88 percent of the vote) and trails in a race so close that a recount is almost certain.
That oddly puts Ken Cuccinelli in the middle of the pack where extremism is concerned. Yes that’s right, the darling of the Virginia tea party who attracted so much national attention for his far right views ranked second in extremism behind Jackson on a slate chosen at a convention dominated by activists. His vote total was also middling at 45.23 percent of the vote, which was much closer than many thought it would be, but a poor enough showing that the race was decided before the end of the night.
There has been much speculation about the role that overarching issues such as the government shutdown or the health care launch may have played in the race for governor. But the effect on the party preference of voters of any of these issues would have been felt up and down the ticket and therefore should not have altered the relative standings of the candidates. So what did?
Let’s consider the margin that ended up separating Obenshain and Cuccinelli. Terry McAuliffe did an effective job of framing Cuccinelli as the candidate that was out of step with the mainstream values of Virginia. At least in Northern Virginia, three of the issues he used to support this “out-of-step” claim were woman’s issues, gun control, and the environment, the latter of which focused on Cuccinelli’s role as a climate change denier. Whatever the importance of these issues to voters when taken individually, they were put together with the purpose of documenting the larger point that Cuccinelli was an extremist in the grip of far right ideology.
And Cuccinelli was guilty as charged on climate change. He not only denied humans were contributing to climate change, but also opposed any actions to curb it. What’s more, as attorney general he attacked the veracity of climate sciences research conducted at the University of Virginia for purely political reasons, even though the scientists had been independently cleared of any wrong doing. Although these were favorable stances with his tea party base, they were definitely at odds with the popular opinion in Virginia, where 77 percent of citizens agree that past warming has been caused by humans and an overwhelming majority support actions on climate change (for example, 81 percent support reducing greenhouse gases from power plants).
In comparison, Obenshain consciously kept his distance from the tea party froth around Jackson and Cuccinelli, emphasizing an independent and bipartisan image in his campaign ads. This is not to say that he is a moderate who supports real action on climate change – he’s not. It only means that he knew better than to allow his opponent, Mark Herring, to easily use this issue or others to paint him into the same corner as the rest of the ticket.
The closer–than-expected result in the governor’s race has left unresolved the dispute between tea party Republicans and mainstream Republicans in the state and elsewhere. The tea party feels their candidate was abandoned and could have won with more help, and the establishment believes they would not have needed so much help if the party had nominated a better positioned Republican, such as Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling. Of these two views, the establishment would seem to have the stronger argument – even if the race could have been won (which isn’t certain), it would have required diversion of scarce resources from other races where they were needed. Wouldn’t it have been better not to have made that race so difficult to begin with?
The lesson for the Republican Party for their image in Virginia and elsewhere is simple. Playing to the base comes at a price, as it often gets you out of step with a majority of the voters on a rack of important issues, including climate change. This year in Virginia, the price of catering to the party base may have been more than the Republicans could afford.