Scylla Defeats Charybdis

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Last night (Nov. 5) Democratic fixer Terry McAuliffe became governor of Virginia by defeating Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli in a singularly unpleasant race. The Libertarian candidate, Robert Sarvis, finished with 6.6% of the vote—a more than respectable total in most statewide elections, but ultimately a bit disappointing in this one, given the almost South Parkesque awfulness of the major-party pair.

As noted earlier in this space, Sarvis had hoped to be included in the final televised debate on Oct. 24, and seemed to have met the requirement of polling at least 10% in major independent statewide opinion polls (in fact, as of the final poll before the debate, he was polling at 12%). But the decision was made — likely because of strong pressure from the Cuccinelli campaign — to hold to a cutoff of Oct. 10 for the polling data, back when Sarvis averaged just over 9%.

If it was Cuccinelli who supplied the pressure, it was a craven but politically expedient move. Trailing McAuliffe by seven to ten percentage points both before and immediately after the debate, the Cooch — no really, that’s the nickname — saw a chance to make up some of that gap by taking votes out of Sarvis’s hide rather than McAuliffe’s. Given Cuccinelli’s firm Catholic belief, I can only assume he derived this strategy from 2 Samuel 12, where the rich man shrewdly steals a poor man’s lone lamb rather than culling one from his own vast flocks. Wherever he got it, though, the result was Rand Paul coming out to stump for Cuccinelli, and bizarre arguments being made in conservative-friendly press outlets such as Breitbart about how Cuccinelli was actually the more libertarian choice.

Never mind that the Virginia AG wanted to remake sodomy into a felony crime, or that he has an anti-immigrant streak a border-fence wide, or that he used his office to threaten a lawsuit against a university scientist for research he didn’t like. The real problem is that he just comes off as insufferable even by the standards of politicians; to be regarded less favorably than Terry McAuliffe —someone whom even the Daily Show, no friend to conservative or libertarian causes, labeled “pond scum”— takes some doing.

In fact, the only thing that seemed to be more unfavorable still was the Affordable Care Act, especially with the ongoing “glitches” in implementation and the parade of lies told by Obama and his advisors coming daily to light. So Cuccinelli doubled down on his pitch to Virginia’s fiscal conservatives, billing himself as the candidate who could stop Obamacare. Though Sarvis had been gathering support in southwest Virginia — up to 20% in regional polls, and even a newspaper endorsement from the Danville Bee — some people evidently defected for Cuccinelli, and the race tightened up notably over the final week.

As a result, those in the Democrat base who may have considered voting Sarvis as a protest vote (or as a vote for his stronger commitment to marriage equality and other generally liberal social issues) ended up choking back their bile and voting McAuliffe instead. And even so, it was closer than most polls inicated: the final margin was about two percentage points, and that’s with the Democrats outspending the GOP by about $15 million.

It remains to be seen what promises McAuliffe had to make, and to whom, in order to get that money, and the state of Virginia can now look forward to the time when those favors get called in. It’s very likely that the list of beneficiaries will include favored contracting firms, green-energy boondoggles, “clean” coal miners, and the NSA shadow economy that spiderwebs through the DC suburbs. But who knows? After all, this is a man who stopped at a fundraiser on the way back from the hospital with his wife and newborn child; he has specialized for decades in connecting people with money to people power, and now he’s the one with the power. He’ll wield it while filling an office previously held by the likes of Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and James Monroe.

As with most elections, the best one can say about this one is that, thank God, it’s over. And there is a bright side, at least from a policy standpoint: the Republicans maintained a “solid” House of Delegates majority, meaning that it’ll be a street fight for McAuliffe to get anything done. But it also means the bitterness of the campaign trail will extend into every legislative tussle over the next four years. One can only hope that the Old Dominion sees better options come 2017.

in major independent statewide opinion polls (in fact, as of the final poll before the debate, he was polling at 12%). But the decision was made



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Two Evils

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In odd-numbered years, there’s rarely much at stake electorally. One of the very few races of note in 2013 is in Virginia, where the gubernatorial race pits Republican attorney general Ken Cuccinelli against former Democratic National Committee head Terry McAuliffe. Both are odious; even among loyal party-line voters there will be very few unheld noses at the polls.

It was McAuliffe, you may recall, who pulled together the funds for Bill Clinton’s presidential run, reaching out to the most toxic corporations and associations — arms manufacturers, polluters, real estate shysters — for donations that would be paid off in regulatory favors down the line. It was McAuliffe, as well, who masterminded the infamous “Buddhist temple” (read: Chinese government) fundraisers for Clinton’s reelection, as well as brokering face time with the president and first lady, even sleepovers in the Lincoln Bedroom — for the right price.

After a public falling-out with Al Gore over the latter’s botched 2000 campaign (one of McAuliffe’s few good points is seeing Gore for the sanctimonious hypocrite he was and always had been), McAuliffe took over at the DNC as the party received its biggest gift in years: the presidency of George W. Bush. However, despite his undeniably effective, undeniably dirty fundraising, he could not oust Bush from office. After running Hillary Clinton’s 2008 bid into the ground, McAuliffe was out of national politics; “the best fundraiser in history” — as Gore himself had said in happier times — had lost his touch. Since he clearly had no intention of just going away, that left only one option: state politics.

In 2009, McAuliffe ran for governor of Virginia — though “ran” is probably the wrong phrasing; more accurate to say “fell flat on his face.” McAuliffe tried to ingratiate himself with the electorate by visiting “every corner” of the state, but he was only ever going to be regarded as a creature of the DC suburbs, a potentate of the despised northern counties. McAuliffe didn’t even make the general election; instead, he got thumped in the primaries by a state senator, Creigh Deeds, who would go on to lose handily to then-Attorney General Bob McDonnell.

McAuliffe pulled together the funds for Bill Clinton’s presidential run, reaching out to toxic corporations and associations for donations that would be paid off in regulatory favors.

And yet, despite all of this baggage, McAuliffe is running again in 2013, and to this point with a slight lead (4 to 6% in most polls) over his Republican competitor. Certainly McAuliffe hasn’t become any better of a candidate in the last four years. What could explain this shift in fortunes?

A few things. First, there is the ongoing, literal shift in fortunes toward the DC suburbs. Much of the wealth extracted by the federal government in recent decades has sloshed into northern Virginia, drawing lobbyists, bureaucrats, and other parasites who make their living off of others’. According to Forbes, half of the richest counties in America, as measured by per-capita income, lie in northern Virginia. The prosperity of these communities (not to mention their extravagant school systems, lavish pensions, and gold-plated healthcare plans) depends on the continuing bloat of the National Security Agency, the Department of Defense, and any number of other agencies situated there. They are as establishment as it is possible to be; they will support anyone and anything that maintains their privileged position — and McAuliffe is all about privilege and position.

Second, the Virginia Republicans are much weaker and more fragmented than they were last time around. In 2009, Bob McDonnell benefited from the ongoing recession, building a successful campaign around a pro-business message and, in the process, bringing the state’s social conservatives (who were behind him no matter what) together with its fiscal ones. However, once in office McDonnell quickly became enmeshed in corporate kickback scandals, culminating in criminal investigations into the governor’s alleged acceptance of gifts totaling upwards of $140,000. McDonnell also alienated the social libertarians among his base by breaking sharply right on several social issues, especially abortion (requiring an ultrasound prior to the procedure) and gay rights (blocking legislation extending health coverage to same-sex partners). With McDonnell blocked from running for reelection by Virginia statute — and potentially also by criminal conviction — the task of keeping the coalition together now falls to AG Cuccinelli.

Which brings me to point the third, Ken Cuccinelli himself. A true believer in the legislation of morality, Cuccinelli has never seen a moral cause he wouldn’t champion. He’s fought rearguard battles in favor of anti-sodomy and even anti-adultery laws, opposed any attempt to end discrimination against gays in public (note: as opposed to private) hiring, created a human trafficking taskforce with the intent and effect of cracking down on prostitution, pushed abstinence-only sex ed, and tried to give police and school administrators the power to search students’ cellphones to prevent sexting.

He has also — and he wasted his own money on this, so it’s in no way unconstitutional, but nonetheless telling — made up his own version of Virginia’s state seal, which features the Roman goddess Virtus, a personification of virtue, wearing a tunic that leaves one breast exposed, as she stands victorious over the vanquished Tyrannus. Never mind that a single exposed breast is often taken to signify modesty — even unobtainability. Never mind that the state’s own description for the seal states that Virtus is dressed in “Amazon” style; i.e., semi-robed. No, for Cuccinelli, as for all prigs, all flesh is prurient; therefore, he devised a seal with a breastplate to conceal the offending teat. If virtue is to conquer tyrants, she better do so in a PG manner.

As with any ideological conservative, Cuccinelli has his good points: he’s fought against eminent domain abuse, and he’s staunchly anti-tax, even leading the fight against a generally bipartisan gasoline tax increase. But stack against that his anti-immigrant stances, such as support for a “papers, please” law allowing police to investigate the residency status of any suspected illegal, as well as for language tests for laid-off workersseeking unemployment benefits. And add in also his embarrassing lawsuit against the University of Virginia relating to research performed on global climate change: Cuccinelli asserted that such research amounted to “fraud” against the taxpayers. Whatever your views on the subject, the prospect of a state’s attorney general wasting huge amounts on court costs in order to meddle with university research should prove chilling, and would have provided a fearsome precedent.

A true believer in the legislation of morality, Cuccinelli has never seen a moral cause he wouldn’t champion.

So Virginia’s voters must choose between the DC swamp slime, and the crusading prude — and these are the images that are drilled into their heads, over and over again, during every television and radio broadcast, on every website, in every newspaper, on every street corner, on and on and on and on. Huge amounts of money assure that this saturation will only get worse: McAuliffe’s taken in $20 million, Cuccinelli more than $13 million; every dollar’s being put to use in shouting at voters, telling them in so many words how the other guy is a scumbag, a misogynist, a bigot, a stooge; certainly unfit to take on the job presently occupied by a(n alleged) crook, and by many other crooks before him.

And the thing is, they’re each right about the other’s unworthiness.Little wonder that the two are polling between 80 and 85% combined in most polls, with huge portions of the electorate undecided, or at least unwilling to commit to either one.

What’s interesting is that, when Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis is included in these polls, he regularly pulls 8–10%. Sarvis’ campaign has been run on shoestrings: by the end of August he’d raised about $60,000, and spent only $45,000 of it. But I’d wager that by the next count, that number will have at least doubled: Sarvis is making good use of his intermittent time in the spotlight, hovering around the showing off his photogenic family, making a case for libertarianism both socially (gay marriage, drug reform) and fiscally (anti-tax, anti-subsidy and other manifestations of crony capitalism).

Sarvis has elaborated these positions while hanging around outside the interminable statewide series of debates between McAuliffe and Cuccinelli, debates to which he, as a third-party candidate, has not been invited. But that may change. On October 24 there is a debate scheduled in Blacksburg at Virginia Tech, with a ground rule that any candidate polling 10% in “major independent statewide polls” can participate. Cuccinelli, showing himself an abject coward, has requested that this bar be raised, to make it in effect impossible for Sarvis to participate. McAuliffe, knowing full well that Sarvis will take more votes out of the Republicans’ hide than the Democrats’, has already signed on, and I would speculate might even provide background support to help Sarvis reach or maintain the required numbers, and then dare Cuccinelli to back out of an event that the attorney general himself requested.

I don’t know what kind of debater Sarvis is, especially when placed up against two able manipulators of rhetoric. But he starts with the advantage of not being either one of them, so there’s every chance his message could be heard. On the other hand, Cuccinelli could prevail, succeeding in getting Sarvis barred from the event with the usual tack of snobbish bluster. If so, then Sarvis will definitely continue to get interviews — McAuliffe will make sure of that — but will lose the chance at a live audience.

Whatever happens, Sarvis has succeeded in injecting something approaching interest into this most dire of elections. Where once the only enjoyment available was looking forward to either Cuccinelli or McAuliffe losing, and savoring the schadenfreude of the concession speech — and there still will be that; my God, how I’m looking forward to watching one or the other spit out the words of defeat while having to drum up at least the pretense of respect for his opponent — now there is also the hope that a message of freedom might make its way into at least a few new hearts and heads.



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