Democrats couldn't hold back their ecstasy this past weekend when the Republican Party of Virginia nominated minister E. W. Jackson as its candidate for lieutenant governor. Jackson is an extremist's extremist. He believes President Obama is a Muslim (and therefore an atheist, because logic). He believes that the Democratic Party has been worse for blacks than slavery ever was thanks to its support of abortion. He thinks gays and lesbians are bad -- really, really bad.
It's easy to understand why Democrats were so excited. Virginia is increasingly purple. The state senate is closely divided (although the house is comfortably in GOP hands), and two of the last three governors were Democrats. President Obama won the state's electoral votes in both 2008 and 2012. By choosing a genuinely certifiable nut as their nominee for the state's second-highest office, Republicans have made it clear that their values are way outside the mainstream of Virginia's electorate.
Jackson's nomination (which came via a convention rather than a primary, an odd quirk of Virginia GOP politics that tends to push the party further to the right) is a disaster for candidates up and down the ballot, said the rapidly gelling common wisdom. Not only would it hurt their chances to hold onto a slim majority in the Senate (and a critical tie-breaking vote), but it would seriously damage the chances of attorney general Ken Cuccinelli, the candidate for governor already dogged by charges of extremism. Dems salivated at the chance to tie the two men closely together, and Cuccinelli, for the sake of party unity, obliged them by putting out a statement praising the running mate who had been foisted upon him. It was a disaster, and Democrats couldn't have been happier.
But having to run with Jackson might be the the best thing that ever happened to Ken Cuccinelli.
I worked for Terry McAuliffe when he chaired the DNC and with him on Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, and like most of the people who know him and have worked for him, I personally like him very much. He's a genuinely nice guy, has great stories, and actually cares more than most people think about the principles Democrats fight for. He's pro-business, to be sure (which is a good fit for a state that elects Democrats like Tim Kaine and Mark Warner), but his instincts are solidly liberal.
But I'm realistic about his weaknesses as a candidate. He is (to put it gently) wildly loathed by many Democrats, especially most progressives, who see him as the worst kind of old-school machine politician. He can come off as ungenuine even when he is at his most genuine. When he first ran in 2009, the commonwealth's Democrats were ecstatic to nominate Creigh Deeds solely because it meant they didn't have to choose between McAuliffe and the equally despised Brian Moran. While people who know Terry like him, average voters do not.
That meant McAuliffe had to clear the primary field for another run, which he did handily this year. (Internal party politics, after all, are where he excels.) It also meant he has one strategy to win this year: paint Ken Cuccinelli -- who at first glance is an appealing candidate -- as a wild-eyed extremist.
Cuccinelli makes this pretty easy given the things he believes in. This is the same attorney general who wanted to punish university professors for working on climate change science. He's anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-Obamacare, and he's wrapped up in a scandal where he received gifts from a tobacco-technology company -- that he's an investor in. By any normal standards, he's one of the most right-wing elected officials in the country.
But his new running mate E. W. Jackson makes Cuccinelli look like Mike Bloomberg. The more time the media and oppo-researchers spend digging up old statements of Jackson's (and there is already a goldmine out there), the more normal -- and electable -- Cuccinelli looks.
It's a delicate game for Cuccinelli to play. He has to begin the general election season with an arm warily around Jackson. Any early overt rejection could damage turnout among his base and look cynical. But Jackson is certain to give Cuccinelli plenty of chances for Sister Souljah moments: look for him to denounce Jackson -- or at least chide him sternly -- over some offensive comments that come up in the course of the campaign.
Governor and lieutenant governor are elected separately in Virginia, so voters who want to reject Jackson and elect Cuccinelli are free to do so. With the media focusing intently on Jackson (he's obviously the Sarah Palin in this race), it sets up a perfect storyline for Cuccinelli: Jackson on the right, McAuliffe on the left, and Cuccinelli in between. In a purple state like Virginia, that's just where you want to be.