Ken Cuccinelli: What might have been

Virginia's attorney general just barely lost the governor's race. It didn't have to be this way.

The surprisingly close Virginia governor's race may be over, but the campaign to assign blame has only just begun.

In the coming hours and days, we will settle on a narrative to explain how Terry McAuliffe — Terry McAuliffe! — eked out a victory and became governor of the commonwealth. And the story we tell ourselves could have major implications.

If the framing that takes hold suggests that an avowed social conservative can no longer win in a swing state, that would have repercussions for future races all across the nation.

Another possibility: President Obama will surely attempt to argue that because Cuccinelli said the election was a "referendum on ObamaCare," McAuliffe's victory is a mandate for the Affordable Care Act.

Of course, the fact that we have to fight over the framing implies that revisionist history is often more opportunistic than accurate.

But if there's a danger in overhyping the significance of this race, there's also a danger in conservatives assuming everything that happened was an accident — that there is nothing for us to learn from all this.

It would be easy to just write this off as bad luck. The Bob McDonnell gifts scandal, a controversial running mate named E.W. Jackson, a libertarian candidate who some believe played spoiler, the government shutdown — none of it was good for Ken Cuccinelli.

There are always factors beyond your control. And it may be that Republicans did real damage to Cuccinelli with the shutdown. We will never know what might have happened in Virginia had the ObamaCare rollout debacle dominated news cycles instead of the shutdown. (Remember, Virginia is home to many federal workers.)

Still, absent some mistakes and missed opportunities, Cuccinelli might have prevailed. Here are five things that might have made a difference.

1. Style. There is a reason modern presidents prefer to nominate Supreme Court justices who don't have much of a paper trail. To quote Don Corleone, "Never tell anybody outside the family what you're thinking."

Yet Cuccinelli went out of his way to tell everybody outside the family what he was thinking by literally publishing it. (And this wasn't some sort of touchy-feely, heartwarming biography that campaigns sometimes put out to soften up a candidate before running, either.)

In reviewing the book, Last Line of Defense, Politico touched on a fundamental problem: "Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli," James Hohmann observed, "has no intention of modulating his uncompromising conservatism to get elected governor. He just needs to explain it better than others have."

The "explain it" part is telling. Why? A maxim in political campaigns is that "if you're explaining, you're losing."

This is not to say Cuccinelli should have moderated, but it is to say that it's usually a mistake to believe that you can prove you're right through debate and intellectual discussion. In short, he often seemed to care more about winning the argument than winning the election.

Now, once you win, you can educate the public and bring them along (as Chris Christie has done to some degree). But that opportunity usually only comes after you have earned it.

2. The running mate. In Virginia, the gubernatorial and lieutenant gubernatorial candidates aren't nominated as a ticket. They are nominated independently, and run independently. (Thus, it's possible to have a Republican governor and a Democratic lieutenant governor.)

Still, voters often perceive that there is a connection, and in that regard, Cuccinelli's campaign probably should have worked harder to ensure that delegates to the Republican convention nominated a candidate for lieutenant governor who would help — not hurt — his cause.

Because Cuccinelli's campaign failed to endorse a running mate (or work behind the scenes to guarantee the right person was nominated), controversial pastor E.W. Jackson won the nod.

This only reinforced the perception that Cuccinelli was a crazy culture warrior, and did nothing to undermine the attacks on him.

Second-guessing is always fraught with danger, but one can't help wondering how things might have played out if Cuccinelli's team had backed the candidacy of Susan Stimpson, the former chairman of the Stafford County Republican Party.

Cuccinelli and Stimpson might have then essentially run as a ticket, traveling the state together. Might that have helped undermine some of the Democrats' most lethal attacks — which essentially fit into the "war on women" rubric? (It matters little that many of these attacks on Cuccinelli by McAuliffe and his allies were of the "pants on fire" category.) It's impossible to know if Stimpson would have helped Cuccinelli. But I suspect she wouldn't have hurt.

3. The sour grapes. When Cuccinelli outmaneuvered Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling to win the Republican gubernatorial nomination, it was easy to predict some feelings could be hurt. Bolling, after all, had been a good soldier, biding his time and playing second fiddle. He even cut a deal with Gov. McDonnell four years ago — agreeing not to run in 2009 in exchange for getting his turn in 2013. But Cuccinelli messed up that succession plan when his supporters orchestrated a coup of sorts, making the nomination contest a convention (which Cuccinelli was almost guaranteed to win) instead of a primary.

Bolling — and this is no testament to his character — resented it, and proceeded to undermine Cuccinelli at every turn. That was probably unavoidable for a proud man who felt spurned.

What might have been prevented, however, is the fact that many of Bolling's advisors and loyalists also switched teams. One imagines this might have been mitigated by hiring some of Bolling's old pals as "advisors" — or by going out of your way to keep them in the tent. You get the feeling that Team Cooch was more comfortable kicking ass than kissing ass — and sometimes it's the latter that matters.

4. The governor. A gifts scandal that plagued Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell this year also posed an unexpected challenge to Cuccinelli. Arguably, the most damaging aspect of the scandal was that it prevented Cuccinelli from fully utilizing McDonnell — who had been a popular governor and was widely viewed as a temperamentally moderate Republican.

Because of the scandal, Cuccinelli apparently decided to distance himself from McDonnell. (It's unclear that this is definitely what happened, but it would make sense.) This reminds me of how Al Gore wasn't able to utilize Bill Clinton when he ran for president in 2000 because of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Despite the facts that Clinton was popular and the economy was terrific, Gore distanced himself from Bubba — to his detriment.

In retrospect, Cuccinelli probably should have wrapped his arms around McDonnell and campaigned across the state with him. McDonnell should have been featured in Cuccinelli ads, too.

5. The messaging. Ironically, one of the best political ads I've ever seen was about how Ken Cuccinelli helped get a wrongly accused man out of jail.

It was incredibly touching. It was also rarely seen. It debuted after Labor Day and never really saturated the public's consciousness.

Most of the ads were attack ads (and trust me, living in Northern Virginia I have seen plenty this year). For example, there was a concerted effort to tie McAuliffe to a company called GreenTech. Maybe this moved some numbers, but it never persuaded me. Everyone knows McAuliffe is a skeevy crony capitalist, so that wasn't new information. And besides, GreenTech sounds positive (green is good…tech is good!).

Meanwhile, McAuliffe's negative ads were eviscerating Cuccinelli (often unfairly), accusing him of wanting to make it harder for women to divorce, taking away birth control pills, and opposing abortion even if a woman is raped.

Cuccinelli began the campaign with an ad that featured his wife. It wasn't terrific, but some positive bio spots might have inoculated him from the coming attacks. We will never know. The campaign seemed to abandon the strategy in favor of going on attack. Like a football team with a strong running back that establishes the run only to later fall behind and abandon the game plan in favor of throwing, the race turned into a contest that Cuccinelli could never win. And McAuliffe was always going to win in a shoot-out. When it comes to raising money and engaging in scurrilous campaigning, he's essentially the Peyton Manning of politics.

It's hard to second-guess what might have been, but it would have been interesting to see what happened if Cuccinelli had spent a lot of money early on inoculating himself against attacks, by running bio spots. Instead, this race mirrored Mitt Romney's campaign, where his story was largely unknown, and he was easily demonized.

It's unclear why these decisions were made. Cuccinelli's top advisors had a few things in common. These were very smart people (I know many of them — and they are among the best in the business), but they are also people who made their names working for candidates like George W. Bush and former Virginia Sen. George Allen. The obvious problem, of course, is that the political environment has changed dramatically in the last few years — especially in the Old Dominion.

It ain't George Allen's Virginia any more.

Editor's note: Matt Lewis' wife previously consulted for Ken Cuccinelli's state Senate and attorney general campaigns.

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