Virginia's Tea Party debacle

Will the impending defeat of Ken Cuccinelli shake the GOP out of its radical right-wing stupor?

By Elias Isquith

Published October 31, 2013 3:50PM (EDT)


Terry McAuliffe is no one’s idea of a dream candidate. He’s never held elected office before, and the experience he does have in high-stakes politics is as a prolific fundraiser — a past vocation that plays about as well in politics as being a former agent of the IRS. In an era when more Americans than ever identify as independents, so disgusted are they with both major parties, McAuliffe is what the New York Times called the “ultimate party insider,” a creature of the Beltway who spends his time currying favor from the moneyed and powerful on behalf of the powerful and soon-to-be moneyed. Add to this the fact that McAuliffe might be the worst husband in politics since Newt Gingrich, and what you’re left with is very much not the profile of a winner.

Yet by every indication, in less than a week, Terry McAuliffe will be elected the governor of Virginia, one of the largest and most important states in the union. And it won’t be close.

McAuliffe’s impending victory has relatively little to do with the man himself. It’s his opponent, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who deserves Democrats’ credit and Republicans’ blame. McAuliffe and his campaign team have done a masterful job, in fact, of shifting the focus away from their profoundly flawed candidate and onto his opponent. McAuliffe may be bad — really, really bad — but as far as Virginians are concerned, Cuccinelli is even worse. A recent poll showed nearly two-thirds of McAuliffe supporters say they’re voting against Cuccinelli rather than for McAuliffe. As one independent McAuliffe supporter told the Daily Beast’s Jamelle Bouie, “I don’t know a lot about McAuliffe, but I do know a lot about Cuccinelli, and I don’t want him to win.”

What this voter knows about Cuccinelli, no doubt with much assistance from the McAuliffe campaign, is that the attorney general is one of the most hardcore conservatives in the Republican Party today. He was one of the first AGs to sue over Obamacare, is a strident opponent of immigration reform, opposes tax increases in nearly every circumstance, and most consequential of all, has distinguished himself as a rabid culture warrior when it comes to issues of gay equality and reproductive rights. His longtime association with the Tea Party certainly doesn’t help, either — especially after a government shutdown that disproportionately harmed Virginians (many of whom are government workers) and was widely seen as the Tea Party’s doing. To put it simply, Cuccinelli is the kind of candidate only a conservative true believer could love.

That Cuccinelli was nominated at all is a testament to just how rightward the Virginia GOP has lurched. But it was predictable, too. After two straight presidential elections in which the Republican candidate lost, only to be swiftly disowned by a party base that insisted he was not conservative enough, the appeal of nominating a “true” conservative like Cuccinelli must have been overwhelming. Virginia’s nomination process is through a convention rather than a primary, too, giving the most motivated and conservative activists even further leverage. In short, Virginia’s conservatives got what they wanted. And they’ll lose for it.

It’s hard not to contrast Cuccinelli’s impending defeat with another Republican gubernatorial aspirant who resides just a few states northward. Chris Christie, New Jersey’s boisterous and pugnacious Republican governor, is cruising to reelection in one of the nation’s most Democratic states, and he’s doing it by maintaining a (questionable) image of moderation and bipartisan spirit. For every gesture of fealty to the Tea Party base that Cuccinelli’s made, Christie has made one to highlight his independence; whether it’s famously partnering with President Barack Obama during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, defending the rights of Muslim citizens, relenting in his fight against gay marriage in the state, or accepting Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, Christie has consistently shown a willingness to buck his party’s base.

With Christie’s victory, and Cuccinelli’s defeat, all but certain, one wonders if the GOP base will learn anything from their divergent examples. From an electoral standpoint, Democrats should certainly hope not — the more Cuccinellis, the better! But for those of us who would like to see a relatively well-functioning, sane political system, one that not only spares us the indignities of debt ceiling threats and government shutdowns, but offers us better choices than McAuliffe or Cuccinelli, a rehabilitated GOP is desirable, indeed. Terry McAuliffe may be Virginia’s future; but let’s hope Christie is the GOP’s.

Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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