Republicans focused on the future of the party in purple states post Mitt Romney are focused like a laser on the gubernatorial race in Virginia. There, a very conservative Attorney General is running to win like an everyday, down to Earth moderate and paint his opponent, a Democratic campaign donor and failed businessman as the Democratic Mitt Romney. Well okay, perhaps not Mitt Romney, but at least as Mitt Romney lite.
Ken Cuccinelli, the GOP candidate for Governor in the state is seen as the more ideological and partisan of the two much as Mitt Romney was. Thus, Cuccinelli is seeking to turn the script on this image and make his opponent look like the guy who only defends the rich and corporate subsidies. Terry McCauliffe, a Democratic bundler and confidante of the Clintons (hey, just like Wiener in New York), does not have much room to walk away from this caricature. As a result he has attacked Cuccinelli on past stances and statements on abortion and gay marriage. Polling for the candidate shows this could be beneficial to the candidate in November.
The contrast between the two candidates in image and stature is easy to see. Cuccinelli campaigns in blue jeans, a T-shirt and a light jacket depending on the weather. McCaulifee always seems to be wearing business casual if not business formal when he campaigns. In style and temperament the two candidates are also different. Cuccinelli has a drawl to his voice which may be linked to his roots while McCauliffe is a more suburban DC boy. In other words, no accent to speak of. Temperamentally, Cuccinelli can easily get fired up on the stump whereas it seems you could throw spitballs at McCauliffe and he might not even blink.
McCauliffe has tried to deflect the Cuccinelli attacks. He went up with his first ad which cited his resume, including paving driveways when he was 14. But unlike Cuccinelli, who has AG has clashed with public utiltiies over price hikes and campaigned for a state constitutional amendment to limit eminent domain restrictions for economic development projects. McCaullife, on the other hand, has no such populist credentials.
National Republicans also seem to be picking up on the attacks Cuccinelli is lobbing on McCauliffe. The Republican Governor’s Association just aired its first ad in the state echoing a similar Cuccinelli theme; McCaullife has cost the state of Virginia jobs and instead created them in China. Echoes of the Mitt Romney attack ads can be discerned if one looks hard enough. This ad jives with a recent report released by the Cuccinelli campaign that in a release last week that GreenTech’s “sister company” sought a visa for an executive at the same Chinese company the Obama campaign linked to Romney and Bain Capital in an ad.
Cuccinelli has also hammered McCauliffe over the fact he has yet to release more than a cover statement for his tax returns since 2010. During the 2012 Presidential campaign Romney was dogged by complaints he should release his tax returns and when he caved it was seen as a major victory for the Obama campaign. Cuccinelli has released his tax returns up to eight years ago.
The shift in strategy for the Cuccinelli campaign be base on two things. First, up until recently the campaign was about two candidates portraying themselves as the lesser of two evils. McCauliffe had been seen as winning that battle with recent polls. Second, McCauliffe had largely been able to attack Cuccinelli on his background while Cuccinelli had little to respond with. Now he does. Moving to the center as a populist seems to solve two of his biggest problems; presenting himself as a defender of the middle class and little people and painting his opponent as a political insider, crony capitalist.
For the Cuccinelli campaign to be successful they must keep up the narrative. Every other day it seemed the Romney campaign had a different strategy. Said David Winston, a GOP consultant based in the state but not affiliated with the Cuccinelli campaign, “Cuccinelli has an interesting narrative here that’s sort of emerged,” Winston said, “but he’s got to translate that into a vision for the future of Virginia and what those policies look like.”
If Cuccinelli can create this narrative he would have a shot of pulling off what Bob McDonnell did in 2009 but not Mitt Romney in 2012. Hold down Democratic margins in Norfolk and Arlington County, split or win the left leaning Loundon and Prince William Counties and wipe out McCauliffe in Southern and Western Virginia. This is doable, but you need the right candidate with the right message to pull it off. McDonnell in 2009 was the right candidate. Mitt Romney, and for that matter Senate candidate and former Governor George Allen were not. We are still waiting on Cuccinelli. But he has a new playbook and message. Come November we will see if it pays off.