Ken Cuccinelli and the Dolchstosslegende

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Nov. 6 2013 5:54 PM

Ken Cuccinelli and the Dolchstosslegende

It hurts to lose an election. It hurts like lemon juice poured into a gash on the back of your knee if, for a moment, you thought you could win.* Republicans in Virginia had started to resign themselves to the defeat of their candidate, Ken Cuccinelli, the smart, right-wing attorney general. He had not led any polls of the race since July; his negative numbers were stuck above 50 percent. He had been, it seemed, doomed by Gov. Bob McDonnell's donor scandal (which kept the most popular Republican in the state off the trail) and by Terry McAuliffe's unholy fundraising and spending.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

But they ended up losing a race by 2.5 points, by as many votes as there are attendees at a state college football gave—much closer than the media polls predicted. As I've been writing since last night, this has reinforced the message Cuccinelli closed with on the trail and even in defeat: The election was a "referendum on Obamacare" and he basically won it.

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This afternoon has brought in a new storyline: The GOP establishment and anti-conservative Republicans threw the race for Cuccinelli. Donors undermined him; socially liberal Republicans spoiled their ballots by voting for a Libertarian. Rush Limbaugh's on board:

They didn't want him to win. This is the dirty little secret. I don't think it's even a secret now. I'm telling you, such is the animus toward the Tea Party in the Republican Party establishment that they are perfectly comfortable with a Christie win and a Cuccinelli loss because to them that's a Tea Party loss. So now the Republican establishment can run around and claim the Tea Party is an albatross around their neck.

Did donors undermine Cuccinelli? Yes. I think Ross Douthat does a good job explaining how the "donor class" balked at supporting Cuccinelli after going more than all in for McDonnell and Mitt Romney. Outgoing Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling undermined Cuccinelli whenever he had the chance. But there's a bit of victimization here. The last three candidates for governor of Virginia were attorneys general, who resigned long before the election to raise money. Cuccinelli never resigned, compounding McAuliffe's advantage by limiting his own choices to 1) not working that day or 2) working and not raising money.

Did Libertarians spoil the election? No. Republicans will never go along with this, but the pre-election polls and the exit poll suggest that Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis drew slightly more potential Democrats than potential Republicans. Unfortunately for us, the exit pollster did not ask who the Sarvis voters' second choice would have been. But Sarvis drew 3 percent of Democrats, 4 percent of Republicans, and 15 percent of independents—and Cuccinelli ended up with a plurality of independents after polling behind among them. Inconclusive? OK: Sarvis won 4 percent of "liberals" and 3 percent of "conservatives." The most Cuccinelli-friendly, reality-based revote, if Sarvis was off the ballot, would have been a 52–48 McAuliffe win.

Was there a pro-Cuccinelli electorate waiting to be tapped? Not really. Cuccinelli won less of the popular vote than any Republican candidate for governor since 1985. Cuccinelli won 45.5 percent, or about 1,011,563 votes. That's about 112,574 fewer votes than he won in 2009, when he became attorney general. McAuliffe has won about 1,066,381 votes, about 247,431 more votes than the last Democratic candidate for governor.

This might be more important. In 2009 the electorate that put Bob McDonnell in office was 37 percent Republican and 33 percent Democratic. Yesterday's electorate: 37 percent Democratic, 32 percent Republican. Whose fault was that? Donors for not backing Cuccinelli? Cuccinelli for alienating moderates? McAuliffe for turning out his vote? 

Did Obamacare close the gap? Somewhat, yes. Democratic pollsters deny it, but the fact is that the Virginia electorate opposed Obamacare. Cuccinelli's problem: It wasn't a motivating issue at the polls.

*Democrats are feeling this in what appears to be the defeat of their candidate for attorney general, which would be the second in three elections lost by a fraction of 1 percent of the vote.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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