Inasmuch that we’re about to experience the so-called “March Madness” spectacle that, for better or for worse, is the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, this is a great time to review the event’s “most wide-open in years” narrative and apply it to Virginia’s looming race for governor between the Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Terry McAuliffe.
Aside from hard-core hoops fans – or, to compare, political junkies – many casual observers know squat about the teams but now that the games begin in earnest, a gradual rise in both interest and knowledge will ensue.
Same thing goes for early posturing by Cuccinelli and McAuliffe. Widespread polling shows both that the two candidates are -- and have been for quite some time -- statistically tied and that a majority of Virginians haven’t been paying a whole lot of attention to an election that’s still some eight months down the road.
Heck, it was just last week that the spurned GOP Lt. Gov.Bill Bolling decided not to potentially shake up the race by running as an independent. Though Bolling explained his decision by saying he didn’t want to break from the Republican party he nonetheless has declined to endorse Cuccinelli.
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for politics, is a life-long Virginian who has intensely followed every gubernatorial election since the 1960s.
When he looks at this one, he scratches his head.
“This,” he says, “is the most unusual matchup I have ever seen.”
In a nutshell, here’s the matchup:
• Cuccinelli, 44, is the ultra-conservative candidate with Tea-Party support who, as Virginia’s attorney general, has operated mostly on strict social-conservative dogma and ideology.
• McAuliffe, 56, is the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and a staunch supporter and fundraiser for Bill and Hillary Clinton, the former a POTUS and the latter a Secretary of State under President Barack Obama.
So, for newcomers to the election, why does Sabato see it as perplexing?
“Usually, candidates are steeped in the ‘Virginia Way,’ ” he says, “You work your way up and you hew closely to the principles that most people associate with Virginia: integrity, moderation, sound reliability.”
As it is, not so much.
“McAuliffe doesn’t have a lick of service in Virginia office,” Sabato says, “and Cuccinelli isn’t moderate by a long shot.”
Neither candidate, by the way, is a Virginia native. Cuccinelli is from New Jersey; McAuliffe, New York. But Cuccinelli has degrees from the University of Virginia and George Mason; McAuliffe from Catholic University and Georgetown.
For his part, Charles Walcott more or less shares his counterpart’s take on the election. Walcott is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Virginia Tech. He, too, scratches his head on this one.
Walcott considers McAuliffe a centrist – to a point.
“Mostly due to his association with Clinton and his off-and-on interest in economic development,” he says. “(But) I’m less than sure where he will position himself – never mind what he actually believes.”
“Cuccinelli is clearly the farthest-right candidate Virginia has had since Ollie North,” Walcott says, referring to the infamous Iran-Contra figure who lost Virginia’s top spot to Chuck Robb in 1994.
So here we are.
But where are we going? Actually, it’s all there in print.
McAuliffe has written a book. Much more recently, Cuccinelli has written a book. Both are revealing, although in different ways, and both provide a pretty good handle on the way each candidate thinks.
McAuliffe’s is a 2007 memoir with the title, “What a Party! My Life Among Democrats, Presidents, Donors, Activists, Alligators and Other Wild Animals.” It’s a self-deprecating, rollicking look at an out-sized personality, a book in which McAuliffe playfully admits his job, at times, has required him to be a “hustler.”
And in the author’s note, he wrote: “This is my book and I’ve done my best to make myself look good. Even if you think I’m full of it, I bet I can still make you laugh.”
Meanwhile, there’s little attempt at humor in Cuccinelli’s book, “The Last Line of Defense”, which was released last month. It’s more or less an unapologetic manifesto for his staunchly conservative agenda and tackles, among other things, his disdain for things such as climate change, social safety net programs (with a special place reserved for Obamacare), abortion and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Among his observations: “. . .Every single thing government does to increase its own power increases the size of its slice of the liberty pie,” and “. . .Climate researchers may have given up the purity of science to forward a global warning agenda simply for the research money.”
In a book review by Steven Ginsburg published this past weekend in the Washington Post, Ginsburg writes that “Moderate Republicans worry that ‘The Last Line of Defense’ places Cuccinelli out of the mainstream while handing Democrats endless fodder to use against him. It’s never a good sign when your opponents hold a news conference, as Democrats did in Richmond, to take turns reading aloud from your book.”
‘UNPREDICTABLE AND NON-TRADITIONAL’
Cuccinelli doesn’t seem to much care about such criticism, as he echoed the same – albeit slightly tamer – narrative last week at CPAC, a conservative red-meat gathering which made news by not inviting New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Sabato believes Cuccnielli’s appeal will come in the usual places, basically anywhere that’s not Northern Virginia, Richmond or Hampton Roads.
McAuliffe, on the other hand, has worked feverishly to establish himself of a businessman interested in job creation but nonetheless figures to run into resistance simply because of deep ties inside Democratic circles; this despite the fact that Virginia went for President Obama the past two elections.
When mulling the race, Virginia Tech’s Walcott, whose career has focused on White House politics, is reminded of stark-divide presidential races such Barry Goldwater vs. Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and Jimmy Carter vs. Ronald Reagan in 1980.
“But the Virginia governor’s race is different in an important way – Cuccinelli, unlike the conservative GOP presidential candidates, really hangs his hat on his social conservatism,” Walcott says. “The others were really more libertarian-business conservatives who embraced the social issue platform (or in Goldwater’s case, ignored it) for practical reasons.”
Sabato paints a similar but starker picture.
“Both are considered unpredictable and non-traditional,” he says, “and one of them is going to be Governor. In the end, one will be seen as less acceptable than the other, defined by negative ads, debates and gaffes.
“This will be a polarizing, process-of-elimination election.”