A Return to 2013?

Greetings readers.

It has been a while since last I wrote. As you may know, I’ve been quite busy searching for positions teaching political science. However, a topic recently came up that I felt needed to be highlighted.

Although I haven’t been particularly active on this site since I started graduate work in political science back in the fall of 2017, I still regularly follow politics, especially Virginia politics given that it is still my home and we still have our regular political discussions of 550 AM, WSVA. As such, it shouldn’t be all that surprising that I read a lot about the candidates running statewide this year.

Glenn Youngkin, the Republican nominee for governor, is a relative newcomer in Virginia politics. He has never run for office before this year and thus I can’t say that I know a whole lot about him. Therefore, whenever his campaign or the Republican Party of Virginia put out a new email about him, I read it hoping to learn more about the candidate. However, as of last week, I unsubscribed from his campaign emails. Why did I do this you may ask. Well, because in many ways his campaign is retreading the ground set by the Cuccinelli campaign eight years ago.

In some ways, 2021 is a repeat of 2013. Terry McAuliffe is once again the Democratic nominee for governor. However, this time instead of running against the well-known Republican attorney general Ken Cuccinelli, he squares off against a more or less unknown candidate, Glenn Youngkin. Unfortunately, the Youngkin campaign and the RPV seem to think the strategy that Cuccinelli employed that resulted in his defeat all those years ago is one worth adopting.

When I spoke to the Cuccinelli campaign in the summer of 2013, they told me that they were using a negative campaign strategy whereby their primary focus was to spread negative information about Terry McAuliffe to, in their words, “make him unelectable to the average Virginian by Labor Day”. The goal was not to build up Cuccinelli and his accomplishments, of which there were quite a few given his record as both Attorney General and as a State Senator, but rather demean McAuliffe (or McAwful as some of Cuccinelli’s supporters began to call him. This tactic resulted in, up to that point, the nastiest campaign that I had ever seen. They sought to tear Virginia apart, vilifying their Democratic opponent and his supporters. In my experience in Virginia politics up to that point, this sort of campaigning wasn’t the norm. Take the 2009 governor race for example. Sure, there were negative points about both Republican Bob McDonnell and Democrat Creigh Deeds, but ultimately it was more or less a race between two Virginia legislators and gentlemen who had differing visions for the future of the Commonwealth.

In the early days of the campaign, Cuccinelli and McAuliffe ran fairly evenly in the polls. But once the Cuccinelli campaign took this negative, scorched earth tactic, they never led in another poll. Although the Republicans used to campaign on a message of liberty and limited government, including in Cuccinelli’s 2009 run for attorney general, this message was absent in the 2013 season. Instead, the idea was that Democrats are bad and thus Republicans, I guess, must be better. Fortunately, at this time Robert Sarvis, the Libertarian candidate for governor stepped in to fill the void.

By October of 2013, Ken Cuccinelli was trailing badly in the polls with Sarvis capturing as much as 12% of likely voters. On October 19th, he invited me and a handful of other folks to speak with him in Lynchburg in the hopes of improving his chances. I remember telling him that his campaign needed to focus on a positive message, explaining to Virginians what good he had done and not simply that he was the lesser of two evils when compared to McAuliffe. He replied that his campaign didn’t have the money to change messaging at that point. As a result, the next day I publically endorsed Robert Sarvis for governor.

Cuccinelli lost on Election Day to McAuliffe by 2.6 points with Sarvis garnering 6.5% of the vote. Many Republicans blamed Sarvis for costing Cuccinelli the election, which the late Rick Sincere addressed at Bearing Drift but the simple fact was that the Cuccinelli campaign lost the election due to their poor strategy and it was important that they lost in order to serve as a warning to future campaigns.

Returning to the present, I regret to say that the Republican Party of Virginia and the Youngkin campaign have adopted the exact same tactic that the failed Cuccinelli campaign employed eight years ago. They have learned nothing from history. They attack Terry McAuliffe almost daily while rarely saying anything positive about Youngkin or how he will improve the Commonwealth if elected. They flood the internet with scare tactics regarding critical race theory and McAuliffe’s supposed cronyism while remaining silent about curtailing the power of the state government and promoting liberty in Virginia. For example although the Democratic legislature recently decriminalized cannabis, Youngkin calls it “another problem that’s going to be dumped at my feet”. Is he an anti-liberty, big government Republican? Is there nothing positive to say about Glenn Youngkin?

Although there is a third-party candidate running for governor, as was the case in 2013, unfortunately, she seems to be an independent Green who doesn’t share many conservative/libertarian values. Regrettably, the Libertarian Party of Virginia isn’t fielding any statewide candidate this year.

If Republicans and the Youngkin campaign continue to employ this lesser of two evils and the demonization of Terry McAuliffe that failed in 2013 while refusing to promote the ideals of liberty and limited government, then I’m not interested in what they have to say and I’d wager that many other Virginians think likewise. Some of us will stay home, others will write-in a candidate, and a few will vote for Terry McAuliffe. Continue down this path, and you shouldn’t be surprised when Virginia Republicans continue their unbroken cycle of statewides losses they’ve maintained since 2013.