By David Lampo
Political fortunes can change very quickly, but as of now it looks like Ken Cuccinelli will lose his bid for governor of Virginia. For those of us who want to expand the Republican Party’s appeal to libertarians and younger voters, that will not be a bad thing. One can only hope this loss will encourage the party leadership to stop pandering to the extreme social conservative base and begin instead to craft a more inclusive, and libertarian, message.
The latest polling shows Democrat Terry McAuliffe with a substantial lead. The Wason Center (affiliated with Christopher Newport University) poll has him up by 9 points, 47-39, with 8 percent for Libertarian Robert Sarvis. Politico’s poll gives him the same lead, 44-35, with 12 percent for Sarvis. Finally, the latest Quinnipiac poll completely mirrors the Wason Center poll, including the 8 percent for Sarvis.
Cuccinelli has actually lost ground during this campaign, a result of successful efforts to brand him, by both McAuliffe and Sarvis, as an extreme social conservative. A September Quinnipiac poll, for example, had the race much closer, with McAuliffe at 44 and Cuccinelli at 41, with 7 percent for Sarvis. Independent voters, who helped propel the Republican ticket four years ago to a huge win, have revolted against this year’s ticket, clearly the most conservative ever in Virginia, with the extremely homophobic Rev. E.W. Jackson as the candidate for lieutenant governor, and another social conservative, Mark Obenshain, as the candidate for attorney general. Independents are almost evenly split in McAuliffe’s favor, 40-38, with Sarvis drawing an astounding 13 percent, with most of his support coming from disaffected Republicans.
The lesson could not be clearer: libertarians, a large and growing part of the independent vote (and a growing percentage of Republican voters as well) simply reject Cuccinelli’s outspoken animus against people he doesn’t like: gays, immigrants, and pro-choice women, to name a few. He built his career, both as a state senator and then attorney general, on votes and policies designed to impose his personal religious beliefs on all Virginians, and those beliefs are now increasingly out of the mainstream, particularly among those voters the Republican Party needs to grow in a time of rapidly shifting demographics.
The social trends and voting patterns evident in the Virginia election will be duplicated elsewhere across the country. The big question is: will the Republican Party wake up and change, or will it continue to pander to a smaller and smaller slice of social conservatives? How Republicans in Virginia react to their defeat in November will tell us a lot about the future of the party.