Taking the Fight to the Democrats

In Virginia's gubernatorial race, opponents of Terry McAuliffe may have cracked the playbook Democrats have used to win in states that ought to go Republican.

September 19, 2013


Democrats used the 2012 election to fine-tune a strategy for beating conservatives in conservative-friendly states. A handful of GOP players are now using Virginia's off-year gubernatorial race to trial-run a strategy for defeating that Democratic tactic.

Virginia so far has been a carbon copy of what Democrats did so successfully in last year's Senate and House races. The approach runs thus: A Democratic candidate, assisted by unions and outside partisan groups, floods the zone with attack ads, painting the GOP opponent as a tea-party nut who is too "extreme" for the state. The left focuses on divisive wedge issues—like abortion—that resonate with women or other important voting constituencies.

As the Republican's unfavorable ratings rise, the Democrat presents himself as a reasonable moderate, in tune with the state's values. A friendly media overlook the Democrat's reliably liberal record, and the lies within the smears against his opponent, and ultimately declares the Democrat unbeatable.

This is how Sen. Heidi Heitkamp won in North Dakota (while Mitt Romney won there by 20 points); how Sen. Joe Donnelly won in Indiana (Romney by 10 points); how Sen. Jon Tester won in Montana (Romney by 14 points). And this is how Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe hopes to beat his GOP rival, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.

The McAuliffe crew has for months slammed Mr. Cuccinelli as a whackadoodle social conservative—suggesting that the respected lawyer is against punishing rapists, against allowing divorce, against contraception. The latest McAuliffe ad presents an obstetrician who declares that Mr. Cuccinelli would "make all abortion illegal." Mr. McAuliffe's advertising rarely ventures into discussing his policy ideas.

The media have failed to challenge most of these accusations, showing considerably more interest in polls showing Mr. McAuliffe pulling ahead, while unfavorability ratings for Mr. Cuccinelli have increased—no doubt driven by the negative ads. The tenor of the campaign coverage: Mr. Cuccinelli is finished.

Enter a new conservative Super PAC, Fight For Tomorrow, which last week began running a creative TV ad against Mr. McAuliffe in the Washington and Richmond areas. Little is known about FFT (as a national Super PAC, it will be required to disclose its backers in January), but one thing is clear from conversations with those involved: The organization's primary focus is to directly take on the Democratic bare-knuckle strategy—and not just neutralize it, but throw it back at the attackers.

The concept behind FFT's ad is to give Virginia voters a context in which to view the McAuliffe attacks. The group's TV spot notes that there is a "gang" supporting Mr. McAuliffe: the leaders of the Democratic Party; an elitist media; Wall Street liberals; outside partisan groups; Hollywood.

Having specified who is doing the smearing on Mr. McAuliffe's behalf, the spot goes on to explain why the groups want Mr. McAuliffe to win: To impose an agenda that Virginians truly would view as nuts. Employing a potent list of "geography verbs," the ad finishes: "Tell these McAuliffe puppeteers, this is Virginia. We won't let you Detroit us with taxes and debt. You will not California Virginia with regulations that kill jobs, or Hollywood our families and schools. You will not bring District of Columbia tax and spend to our state. Tell them: You can't have Virginia."

One merit of the ad is that, while it directly addresses the left's scorched-earth campaign, it doesn't stoop to responding to the accusations against Mr. Cuccinelli. (The ad doesn't even mention the candidate.) Another attribute is that it switches voter attention away from the wild Cuccinelli caricature and onto all the failed Democratic policies—like the ones that produced soaring energy prices, health-care rationing and huge deficits—that Mr. McAuliffe seems desperate to avoid discussing.

Indeed, the whole idea here is to turn the tables, to get the GOP back on offense, rather than offering cringing defenses of positions that are in fact widely shared by a center-right country.

"The honest views of Terry McAuliffe and his liberal supporters are what are extreme, but they are hiding them, and doing so by running a smear campaign against Ken Cuccinelli," says Matt Mackowiak, the executive director of FFT.

While the FFT ad buy has been modest, Mr. Mackowiak says that a focus group testing the ad among Virginians showed that 27 of 28 people who watched the spot moved away from supporting Mr. McAuliffe. The ad had been slated to run only two days, but the response was so positive, he says, that the group extended the campaign to a full week. This comes even as a recent poll showed the race close within the margin of error, blowing up the media's early burial of Mr. Cuccinelli and giving his supporters new drive to take on the McAuliffe machine.

Whether or not the FFT campaign ultimately moves the dial, no one can fault that group's desire to confront what is now the standard Democratic playbook. If the GOP wants to start winning states it should be winning, that playbook is the nut it has to crack.