How The Republican Donor Class Gave Us Terry McAuliffe

Published November 7, 2013

The story playing out in the wake of Ken Cuccinelli’s narrow loss is of a piece with the divisions that have dogged the right in races large and small in recent years. Whenever it comes to a clash between the donor class and the base, there’s all sorts of threats and exhortations about who’s going to take their ball and go home. The grassroots conservatives say they won’t be able to deliver the votes and the volunteers, while the donor community demands that they be logical and get on the team.

Yet for all the talk of Tea Party intransigence, the reality is that once the primaries and conventions are over, the sore losers in the bunch tend to all be on the money side, not the grassroots. The conservative base will swallow hard, grit their teeth, and back a moderate against a liberal time and again, just as Tea Party groups backed Mitt Romney and conservatives backed John McCain. But the donors typically find it a lot easier to take their ball and go home.

This wasn’t what the story was supposed to be in Virginia. Today, the Republican donor community is flailing desperately for a narrative to defend their decision to leave Cuccinelli high and dry as something other than a temper tantrum. The story was supposed to be that Terry McAuliffe and Bill Bolling were right: Cuccinelli was too extreme for Virginia, and it was time to get back to nominating the types of candidates they wanted. But Cuccinelli – even without the money, without the support, without the infrastructure – made it a race in the closing days, and now the donor class which said “screw it, I’m out” after the nomination fight played out are straining for excuses.

The recriminations over Cuccinelli’s narrow loss have thus far mostly been trained on the RNC and other major organizations, but that’s somewhat unfair. Yes, they should’ve recognized the potential for Obamacare to take this race from the embarrassment public polling indicated to a closer thing.

“The fact is, Democrats on the Hill would have identified ObamaCare as the culprit if Cuccinelli had eked out a narrow victory over a guy who massively outspent him and maintained a sizable polling lead until the end. If you want red-state Dems to run screaming from the ACA, shocking a Clinton crony who looked poised for an easy win in a bellwether state could have done the trick. Which is not to say all is lost: There are a few dopey liberal pundits on Twitter this morning insisting that Virginia was a “victory for ObamaCare” or something because McAuliffe managed to survive, but rest assured, that’s not the lesson being drawn by Mark Pryor and Mary Landrieu given the narrowness of the margin. Even so, an outright win for Cuccinelli would have sent a much more powerful message. So why didn’t the RNC — and outside groups, and Republican millionaires/billionaires — do more to make it happen? They weren’t really more interested in seeing a tea-party star get his “comeuppance” than seizing power in a purple state like Virginia, were they?”

The truth is that complaints should be aimed less at those who should’ve done more late in the game, and more at those who unplugged from the beginning, never showing up to back Cuccinelli earlier in the contest. Ross Douthat touches on this in his wise take on the vengeance of donorism:

“I’ve been extremely critical, since 2012, of what I’ve called the “donorist” worldview within the G.O.P., which basically imagines that the party’s only problem is its stance on social issues, and that with the right mix of immigration boosterism and gay marriage flip-flopping, Republicans can cruise to victory without so much as tweaking their “1980 forever” economic agenda. This strikes me as politically blinkered as well as mistaken on the policy merits, and given a choice between a conservatism founded on donorist ideas and a conservatism founded on the more populist alternatives, I’ll take the latter, faults and all, every time. (Bill Bolling, Cuccinelli’s more business-friendly rival for the G.O.P. nomination, might have eked out a win over McAuliffe, but a Republican Party organized around Bill Bolling’s worldview would be a permanent minority party, having essentially cut its base adrift in exchange for better fundraising and a few more suburban votes.)”

These donors who unplugged early don’t even have the excuse of those terrible late poll numbers to back them up. According to internal polling data from Cuccinelli’s campaign, his net favorable numbers went from +4 in February to -20 in mid-October, with his unfavorable ratings steadily rising from 26% in February to 50% unfavorable in mid-October (with no change in favorability – he was hovering at 30% the whole time). At the same time, McAuliffe’s net favorable went from +6 in February to -2 in mid-October, rising roughly together. That is a function of money and ads and nothing else: a candidate getting completely curbstomped on the airwaves with barely a modicum of an ability to fight back.

So how in the world did such a candidate – lacking resources, well behind in the polls – make it close? The McAuliffe campaign is pushing the notion today that they had better internal data, which showed a closer race all along, indicating that Obamacare made no difference in the closing days. But if you cut through the spin, you’ll realize that believing the McAuliffe campaign’s claim requires you to believe that every public pollster was wrong, their secret numbers were right, and the fact that this conveniently helps the national narrative McAuliffe and his allies would prefer is incidental. (Oh, yes, you should totally trust Obama’s data team when they say Obamacare was irrelevant, and they have no reason whatsoever to push that talking point regardless of its accuracy. No reason at all. And if you believe that, I have a government website where you can sign up for health insurance in minutes, with ease.)

The idea that there was anything other than Obamacare at work here doesn’t pass the smell test. In Cuccinelli’s final internal poll, taken the same time as public polls showing McAuliffe ahead anywhere from 7 to 17 points, the campaign found a similarly depressing story: they were down 38%-47% among likely voters, winning white voters by just 40%-37%, and with Cuccinelli trailing by a wide margin among Independents (he ultimately won them) and getting only 57% of support from soft Republicans. It seemed impossible that such numbers would turn around.

Only 2 polls after 10/1 showed McAuliffe up by less than 6 points.

Only 2 polls after 10/1 showed McAuliffe up by less than 6 points.

Over the next two weeks, Cuccinelli would add almost eight points to his total without any ad presence in the Northern Virginia market. That’s an incredible pace, one that it’s difficult to find any precedent for in an election with this much polling data going into the final weeks. There was no other major news story. There was no major breaking scandal. Obamacare’s rollout made the difference.  And the Democrats up for re-election next year know it. If only the Republican donor class had been in the game in Virginia all along, maybe they would’ve known it, too.

[Originally published on The Federalist]