It’s not the war on women: Cuccinelli’s $18,000 mistake

Paul Goldman Former Chairman, Democratic Party of Virginia
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As the saying goes, “for want of a nail, the kingdom was lost.”

Yes, Democratic Terry McAuliffe and friends hugely outspent Republican Ken Cuccinelli. Indeed, many of the usual GOP funding sources in Virginia were AWOL, or noticeably tepid in their support for the GOP gubernatorial nominee. But all of Terry’s many extra millions would not have mattered if Mr. Cuccinelli had refrained from making a simple $18,000 mistake.

So it is time for Chris LaCivita, Cuccinelli’s chief strategy guy, to man-up, and stop playing the victim, double-crossed by RINO moderates, egotistical conservatives, or the Republican establishment. Sometimes a good campaign strategy loses big. Sometimes a really bad campaign loses close. This latter equation is what happened to Cuccinelli.

The key to Cuccinelli’s loss is thus not what others failed to do: but rather what the Cuccinelli campaign failed to do on one simple issue.

The first poll put out by the Washington Post early in the year found Cuccinelli to have a very solid favorable image. If he had managed to hold onto even a marginally unpopular image, the GOP nominee, based on the election results, comes out a winner, not a loser.

But he failed to do it: and it all came down to a stubborn, baffling refusal to part with $18,000. Yes, the candidate would have had to technically pay it personally, but it could have come legally and even untraceably from the campaign in the end.

This $18,000 is the amount of in-kind contributions — a dinner, plane ride, being a guest for a vacation — provided by Jonnie Williams, founder of Virginia-based Star Scientific Inc. He is the 58 year old businessman at the heart of the federal investigation into outgoing Republican Governor Robert McDonnell. The $18,000 in contributions were legal, indeed ruled valid by a Democratic prosecutor who looked into the matter and found nothing wrong.

Cuccinelli stubbornly refused to give the money back for months, saying the cash, gifts and loans given by Williams to McDonnell were “different.” But once McDonnell conceded he shouldn’t have accepted the Williams’ largess and paid the business executive back. This meant Cuccinelli had to do the same as a matter of basic politics.

His campaign refused. By so doing, it opened the door to an image-altering barrage of negative television ads from the McAuliffe campaign. They redefined Cuccinelli as unethical, destroying his previously clean image.

Once Cuccinelli got undermined by this $18000, the race changed permanently in key, but often subtle, ways. Everyone on all sides of the aisle felt it, as evidenced by the fact that Cuccinelli, after months of refusing, eventually paid the money saying the issue had become a distraction.

And a distraction it was: It distracted him from having any chance of winning.

Did the shutdown deny Cuccinelli full use of the Obamacare issue at the end? Yes. Did McAuliffe misread the Obamacare issue at the end? That is what I wrote at the time.

All this is likely to be the case. But when you cut through to the bottom line, Cuccinelli didn’t lose because he is a victim of his own party’s failure to give him money, or the fact a lot of Republican-friendly donors found Cuccinelli’s social agenda too harsh.

In the end, all those millions would not have mattered had the Cuccinelli brain trust not made an $18,000 mistake. It is true, in fairness, that there is no way to know the precise path that Cuccinelli to refuse to repay the money, given that the campaign itself later conceded it was necessary.

My suspicion is this: Though Chris LaCivita defended the decision publicly, as an ex-Marine, he might have only been doing his duty. But even so, that goes with the job, I have had to do it myself, take the hit for mistakes of others. No fun for sure, but Chris volunteered for the job.

Terry McAuliffe won playing by the rules. In politics, you need to be a gracious loser, not a whiner. The only victims are loyal GOP voters who deserved a better campaign.

It is unbelievable that an unforced $18,000 mistake appears, with the votes now cast, to have changed the outcome of an election costing upwards of $70 million.

But given the small margin of victory, and how the campaign actually unfolded, this is the view from Richmond.