Virginia Election Result Should Not Discourage Social Conservatives

The recent 2013 Virginia off-year gubernatorial election quite understandably attracted considerable national attention. As a northern Virginia resident since 1982, I have followed, and have often been locally involved in, a number of these Virginia elections, including this one. A few observations on it from the standpoint of a grass-roots worker may add a perspective not widely heard in the accounts of regular reporters and pundits. The loss of this election does not, in my view, suggest that future defeats by social conservative candidates are inevitable.

Theoretically the election presented two opposed views of what policies and programs ought to be approved by the voters. On the one hand, Virginia Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli announced a generically conservative campaign based on smaller government, lower taxes, improvements in education, and the like. In practice, however, he was already so well known as an ardent pro-lifer and Tea Party favorite, as well as the first state official to file a lawsuit against the federal Obamacare law, that his campaign inevitably ended up being viewed in the light of these burning “social issues.”

On the other hand, Terry McAuliffe, the eventual winner (though by less than fifty percent of the vote), ran as a straight down-the-line liberal wholly committed to the policies and programs of the Obama Administration. A pro-abortion Catholic and wheeler-and-dealer businessman, he has been an almost legendary fund-raiser for the Democrats, and is also famous for being a confidant and friend of Bill and Hilary Clinton. Following his victory, he announced that his first act as governor would be to issue an executive order forbidding discrimination against LGBTers.

Both the two party campaigns and the media reporting on them tended to focus less on the positions and issues that divided the candidates than on the candidates themselves. There were important issues at stake, but what generally got served up to the public instead was negative campaigning that created the impression of a sleazy operator running against a far-right extremist. Yet while the exposés of sleazy dealings were mostly well founded, the accusations of “extremism” were generally slanders and sometimes outright lies.

 

The basis on which the characterization of Ken Cuccinelli as an extremist was made, for example, included such beliefs of his as that a true marriage can only take place between a man and a woman, that wanton killing of the unborn ought not to be the law of the land, and that people ought not to be required to violate their consciences by being forced by law to purchase health insurance policies obligatorily providing gratis immoral “preventive services,” including the provision of abortion-inducing drugs. In today’s moral climate in America, being opposed to these things—not being in favor of them!—is what counts as “extremism.”

The campaign waged against Cuccinelli by the Democrats was almost exactly like the one they waged against Mitt Romney, namely, that he was engaged in a so-called “war on women.”

And it worked! Again. Last spring the McAuliffe campaign staffers realized that Cuccinelli was more vulnerable to this kind of attack than even Romney had been. So they methodically set out to define and demonize him with the “extremist” tag. The TV ad campaign they launched was relentless and went on and on. The Democrats enjoyed an enormous financial advantage here, outspending the Republicans almost ten to one. The Republicans could not reply to these ads with anything even remotely comparable. Only later did we also learn that, in the face of this onslaught, both the Republican National Committee and major Republican donors had meanwhile cut back severely on financial support for their candidate in an election that they should have realized was vital. Near the end such financial support ceased entirely and the Cuccinelli campaign was “on its own.”

More than that, like the Romney campaign before them, the establishment Republicans did not seem to grasp that they had to try to respond to the slander against Ken Cuccinelli—that it was essential to counter the falsehoods and demonization of their candidate being believed by all too many low-information voters. In particular, young single women seem to have been massively swayed against him. But then, as it appeared, the social issues had never been part of the Republican Party’s electoral game plan.

Late in the game, Cuccinelli himself, rather ruefully, put out a statement saying that it had never been his intention to deprive women of their contraceptives, which in any case no one could ever do anyway (he said) because of Supreme Court rulings. But why his campaign people, after the success of the spurious “war on women” accusations against Mitt Romney, did not grasp that they really had to counter the efforts of the Democrats to define their candidate as anti-woman is simply one of the great unanswered mysteries of the 2013 Virginia gubernatorial election.

If against an allegation that you want to keep women barefoot and pregnant and in the kitchen, you merely reply that, oh, you really want to create jobs and improve education, you have surely got to realize that some of the mud thrown at you is going to stick. Once Ken Cuccinelli became the official candidate of the Republican Party, establishment Republicans were apparently able to dictate what the campaign was officially about (not the social issues, evidently). Why this party influence obtained at the same time that the party’s financial support was being cut back so drastically is yet another one of those unanswered mysteries about this campaign.

What the Republican Party should have done from the outset was to take the express position that, yes, our candidate is pro-life, pro-traditional marriage, and pro-religious liberty—and should then also have prepared reasoned position papers explaining and defending these positions. This is what Cuccinelli actually did four years earlier when he was running for attorney general. He won that election. And he was rarely or never fazed or rattled on the campaign trail when challenged with the hostile questions of reporters seeking to bring out his alleged “extremism.” Often, he turned the rhetorical tables on these hostile questioners, leaving them embarrassed and nonplused at being unable to answer his questions about, say, abuses at abortion clinics. As a state senator he had almost single-handedly made the arrangements with his colleagues that brought us Virginia’s “Choose Life” license plates.

Why the Republican Party in 2013 proved unwilling or unable to make better use of the obvious talents and convictions of such a man, especially when he was their official candidate anyway, is another one of this election’s great unanswered mysteries. The fact of the matter is that the social issues are always going to be brought up and discussed in election campaigns today, whether or not the establishment Republicans want to see them brought up and discussed; so they might as well learn how to present and argue them effectively, rather than leaving it to the opposition to define these issues.

As time passed, many of us working for Cuccinelli’s election grew anxious that his campaign did not seem to be speaking to many of the issues that had motivated so many of us to support him in the first place. The whole approach seemed to be that of a Romney-style campaign presumably aimed at not alienating “independent” voters, while taking for granted the pro-life and pro-family base that supposedly had “no place to go.” The trouble with this kind of calculation, however, is that it never seems to take into account that perhaps the pro-life and pro-family base, or at least significant portions of it, may not come out to vote at all in sufficient numbers, if never given any incentive to do so. (Actually, Cuccinelli won the vote of “independents” this time around despite his social conservatism. Catering to the “independents,” however, proved insufficient to secure victory.)

I know of an actual case where Cuccinelli was directly questioned about how his campaign was being conducted. He replied that “changes are being made.” But the changes he was referring to did not seem to come very fast or very dramatically. New momentum and better prospects only became manifest near the end.

In the event, two things were what almost turned the campaign around, causing it to end up as close as it finally did. First, even though the Republican bigwigs generally were quite complacently sure that the social issues did not need to be in play—or perhaps they even considered them to be counterproductive—people active in the pro-life and pro-family movements in Virginia understood very well what the real stakes were; and they further understood that this election afforded a significant opportunity to put some spokes in the wheels of today’s rolling moral decadence and decline in America. If this is not stopped, and reversed, it will eventually destroy the America that was bequeathed to us by our forefathers.

Never in the course of many Virginia elections did I ever see so much spontaneous activity at the grass roots to persuade people what was at stake, to knock on doors, to make telephone calls, to prepare and distribute flyers, to offer to drive people to the polls, etc. Much of this activity was independent of and went beyond what the Republican Party itself was officially doing. This was even true of the incessant robocalls, which somebody had to pay for and which continued right up to election day. To a greater extent than I have ever seen, people felt keenly that they had to “do something.” Surely this bodes well for the future.

The second factor that brought Ken Cuccinelli close to victory in spite of the enormous, indeed insuperable, odds and obstacles that he faced was the implosion of the Orwellian-named Affordable Care Act—that is, Obamacare. Just a few weeks earlier, while the federal government was temporarily closed down, most people seemed mad at the Republicans, and that may have helped account for the double-digit lead in the polls given to McAuliffe. But then Obamacare kicked in, and the health insurance now legally required for just about everybody nevertheless proved practically impossible to obtain. At the same time, the insurance policies of huge numbers of Virginians that President Obama had many times promised people would be able to keep were in fact increasingly being cancelled. Suddenly it finally became clear to many that not only was the Obama Administration incompetent; the president was a liar. The shift in public sentiment was palpable. And Ken Cuccinelli, as the first state attorney general to file a lawsuit against Obamacare, instantly benefited. If the election had been held a few days later, he might well have won.

You might argue that this turn of events was an accidental factor with no permanent bearing on how elections need to be conducted by social conservatives. No: it proved that sometimes events do work in our favor, and then it becomes a question of how these events are to be exploited—as Cuccinelli brilliantly did in the last few days. He brought in Ron Paul, for example, to neutralize the fake libertarian candidate being funded by a liberal Democratic PAC.

Catholics and conservatives should not be discouraged by the loss of this Virginia gubernatorial election. It came close to being a victory, and next time it might well be a victory. Obviously we do need to stick to our principles, however. And we also need to work tirelessly and hard getting across to our establishment Republican friends that their reluctance to deal with the social issues is a foolish as well as a losing strategy.

In the meantime, I was consoled by the initial psalm in the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours for election day:

Do not fret because of the wicked;
Do not envy those who do evil:
for they wither quickly like grass
and fade like the green of the fields (#37).

(Photo credit: Linda Davidson / AP)

Kenneth D. Whitehead

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Kenneth D. Whitehead is a former career diplomat who served in Rome and the Middle East and as the chief of the Arabic Service of the Voice of America. For eight years he served as executive vice president of Catholics United for the Faith. He also served as a United States Assistant Secretary of Education during the Reagan Administration. He is the author of The Renewed Church: The Second Vatican Council’s Enduring Teaching about the Church (Sapientia Press, 2009) and, most recently, Affirming Religious Freedom: How Vatican Council II Developed the Church’s Teaching to Meet Today’s Needs (St. Paul’s, 2010).

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