Will Conservatives Learn from Their Defeat in the Virginia Election?

By David Lampo

The excuse-making for the Republican election loss in Virginia is in full swing.  Instead of focusing on the candidates who lost – Ken Cuccinelli, Rev. E.W. Jackson, and (most likely) Mark Obenshain ­– and their lack of appeal to many Republicans and libertarians, their defenders are blaming everything but the candidates themselves and their long history of voting against and speaking against gay rights, as well as their insistence on interfering with a woman’s right to make her own reproductive decisions, among many other shortcomings.

Perhaps their number one excuse for Cuccinelli’s defeat was the presence in the race for governor of Libertarian Robert Sarvis, who won nearly 7 percent of the vote against Terry McAuliffe’s 47.6 percent and Cuccinelli’s 45.4 percent.  Their narrative even before the election was to pre-emptively blame Sarvis for Cuccinelli’s then-impending loss, and indeed Sarvis’s percentage of the vote was more than double the difference between the two major candidates.

Unfortunately for Cuccinelli’s defenders, reality is a lot more complicated than they would like to admit.  Voter analysis clearly shows that Sarvis actually took more votes from McAuliffe than Cuccinelli.  Yes, you read that right.  According to CNN’s exit polling, “if Sarvis had not been in the race, exit polls indicate McAuliffe would have beaten Cuccinelli by 7 points (50%-43%),” substantially more than his actual total. Sarvis certainly peeled away some Republican votes, but he also pulled votes from McAuliffe, a less than ideal candidate in the minds of many Democrats.  And some Sarvis voters would have simply stayed home without him in the race.

As hard as it may be for Cuccinelli partisans to accept, his presence at the top of the ticket also caused many conservatives to stay home on election day, or to vote for someone else.  As Paul Goldman and Norman Leahy from the Virginia political blog Bearing Drift wrote in their analysis of the election results, “exit polling reveals that Cuccinelli won only 83 percent of the conservative vote,” (with 13 percent going to McAuliffe and only 3 percent to Sarvis).  If Cuccinelli had won the same percentage of the conservative vote as Gov. Bob McDonnell did four years ago, they said, he would have won the election, in spite of the fact that conservative turnout was actually down this year compared to 2009. In other words, between the conservatives who voted for another candidate and those who didn’t vote at all, it was enough to defeat Cuccinelli.  “Had conservatives backed Cuccinelli at 2009 levels,” they concluded, “he would have won by 19,000 votes!”  Time to look in the mirror, guys.

Cuccinelli backers are certainly correct that McAuliffe won the money race, and indeed, it certainly played a part in the unending stream of anti-Cuccinelli ads.  But he won it in part because so many former Republican donors abandoned ship based on Cuccinelli’s record, not to mention his crazy ticket-mate, Rev. Jackson, who Cuccinelli never really backed away from.  Even the Chamber of Commerce, who had contributed $1,000,000 to McDonnell in his race four years ago, sat out the race.

The bottom line is this:  Team Cuccinelli lost the race in part because of its long public record of opposition and hostility to legal equality for gays and lesbians, its assault on the rights of women to control their reproductive freedom, and its lack of any empathy for thousands of illegal immigrants who came here to work hard to build a better life; in fact, McAuliffe’s effective ads focused mostly on these issues.  His defeat should be a cautionary tale to those on the right who still think the demographic makeup of voters, as well as their views on gay rights, is the same as it was 20 or 30 years ago. That’s certainly not the case in Virginia, or nearly anywhere else in the country.  Until the Republican Party accepts the new realities, including majority support for gay rights, and adjusts it platform accordingly, it will never be the majority party it once was and hopes to be again.

David Lampo serves on the national board of Log Cabin Republicans and is the author of A Fundamental Freedom: Why Republicans, Conservatives, and Libertarians Should Support Gay Rights (Rowman & Littlefield 2012).

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