Did Virginia Republicans just throw the 2013 governor's race?

Peter Weber
The Week
E.W. Jackson delivers his acceptance speech for the GOP nomination for Lt. Gov. in Richmond, Va. on May 18.

A few thousand GOP activists pick controversial preacher E.W. Jackson to run alongside Ken Cuccinelli

The race for Virginia governor, one of the marquee contests of 2013, was already shaping up to be a contentious showdown between two fairly polarizing figures, Clinton acolyte Terry McAuliffe for the Democrats and Virginia Secretary of State Ken Cuccinelli for the Republicans. Then, at a GOP nominating convention last weekend, "a small turnout of party die-hards picked a nominee for lieutenant governor who is nothing short of outrageous," says Jennifer Rubin at The Washington Post.

To make sure that Cuccinelli would prevail over more moderate challengers, the GOP agreed to hold a nominating convention instead of a primary. The move worked even before the several thousand Republicans gathered to vote last weekend — Cuccinelli's main GOP rival, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R), dropped out of the race weeks ago — but "it might also sink his chance to win," says Rachel Weiner at The Washington Post. That's because the several thousand GOP activists also selected E.W. Jackson, a socially conservative black preacher, as Cuccinelli's running mate.

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What's the problem with Jackson? In a nutshell, he's ultraconservative in a state that just voted for President Obama, says the Post's Rubin:

Jackson has called gays "perverted" and "very sick people psychologically, mentally and emotionally." He has said the president has "Muslim sensibilities." He has compared Planned Parenthood to the KKK. He previously got less than 5 percent of the vote in the GOP primary for U.S. Senate in 2012. He is by any definition an extremist, someone who could not muster even minimal support from GOP primary voters. [Washington Post]

The surprise election of Jackson has sent Republicans into a panic, says Beth Reinhard at National Journal. "Jackson's rhetoric puts Cuccinelli — whose own opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion has earned him a loyal conservative base of support — in a tough spot." Cuccinelli can't disown Jackson without alienating the GOP base, but he also can't embrace him lest Cuccinelli's own staunch socially conservative views come to dominate a campaign he's trying to make about the economy.

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Still, "while Jackson's addition to the slate complicates Cuccinelli's campaign, it doesn't guarantee a tailspin," says Reinhard:

As a Harvard Law School graduate and former Marine, Jackson brings some obvious assets to the race. The top candidates run separately in Virginia, so it's possible for a split-ticket result in November. One recent example: When Republican George Allen ran for governor in 1993, a conservative homeschooling champion, Mike Farris, won the nomination to be lieutenant governor. Allen kept his distance and won, while Farris was defeated by Democrat Don Beyer. [National Journal]

The state's GOP establishment also holds out hope that Cuccinelli will prevail because this is an off-year election, and "in off-year races, Virginia voters have a tendency to vote for the party that lost the last national election, a trend that's held since 1977," says the Post's Weiner. And then there's the fact that their opponent, McAuliffe, "has faced questions about his leadership of an electric car company and some unflattering quotes from his own memoir."

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"We're in a deep [expletive]," a Virginia Republican strategist tells the Post. "The only good news is that the Democrats have Terry McAuliffe. It's the only thing keeping us glued to a chance of victory."

That smacks of wishful thinking, says Ross Kaminsky at The American Spectator. "Unless Mr. Jackson steps aside, it strikes me as likely that Virginia will face the depressing prospect of Governor Terry McAuliffe." The big problem that Democrats will exploit is Jackson's "history of, shall we say, extremely un-PC remarks about homosexuality." In this country at this time, Kaminsky says, "connecting homosexuality to pedophilia is political suicide."

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There is a lot to recommend Mr. Jackson, from his service to his obvious intelligence to his passion for the things he believes in. And of course, Republicans are always looking to put forward black conservative candidates. But politics is, as much as anything else, about winning. With the choice of Jackson, Virginia Republicans showed either ignorance of his history... or of recent political history. [American Spectator]

Virginia Republicans are right to be nervous about Jackson, says Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway. "Even if Cuccinelli manages to avoid Jackson being an albatross on his own campaign, his presence on the ticket could end up making it hard for a Governor Cuccinelli to get his agenda through the state legislature."

The Virginia Lt. Governor's primary power is to break ties in the State Senate and, currently, the State Senate is equally divided between Republicans and Democrats. More than once, Bolling's tie breaking vote has been needed to push through a piece of legislation, and he's been able to use that fact to have real influence on the direction of legislation in the Senate. This tie will stay in effect at least until the next legislature meets in 2016 after the 2015 mid-term elections, meaning that whoever wins the Lt. Governor's office in November will be casting tie votes quite a lot over the next two years, if not more. If voters sour on Jackson but are still willing to give Cuccinelli a chance, then Virginia voters may go for the Democratic candidate (who will be picked in a primary next month.) [Outside the Beltway]

If Cuccinelli wants to win, which means "keeping his losses down in Northern Virginia, he'll need to reject Jackson's views (e.g. No I don't believe gays are perverts...) and quit campaigning with him as soon as feasible," says the Post's Rubin. This race isn't over, "but the Dems just caught a lucky break."

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