- - Sunday, November 10, 2013

Virginia’s state elections are now nearly a week in the rearview mirror, and as the smoke clears and dust settles — pick your political cliche — several take-aways from the results are becoming clearer.

First, self-styled “good government” groups such as Common Cause were proved wrong. Campaign-finance reform advocates stood mute as Democratic Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe proved beyond dispute that negative campaigns work, if just barely. He also showed that it is indeed possible to buy an election when you have unlimited cash with which to inundate your underfinanced opponent with a flood of blatantly false, character-assassinating ads, which went largely unanswered. Despite being outspent by about $14.5 million, state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican nominee, lost by fewer than 55,000 votes out of 2.22 million votes cast, or less than 2.5 percent of the vote.

That was far less than the 145,507 votes garnered by third-party Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis, most of whose 6.52 percent of the vote presumably would have gone to Mr. Cuccinelli in his absence. Mr. McAuliffe owes his election to Mr. Sarvis, whose campaign was financed early on by a Texas billionaire bundler for President Obama. That news didn’t surface until Election Day; had it been discovered much earlier, it might have forced the stalking-horse candidate out of the race.

As such, it’s not surprising that Mr. McAuliffe’s win had no coattail effects, with Republicans retaining veto-proof control of the state House of Delegates with 67 of 100 seats, and with Mr. Cuccinelli set to be succeeded as state attorney general by Republican state Sen. Mark Obenshain. Pending a recount, he currently holds a slim 777-vote lead (0.03 percent) over Democratic state Sen. Mark Herring.

Mr. Obenshain’s win provides an insight into how Mr. Cuccinelli could perhaps have prevailed, by effectively neutralizing Mr. McAuliffe’s vicious and untrue, but ultimately successful, “anti-woman” meme against him. Mr. Herring employed those same attacks against Mr. Obenshain, but the Republican parried it by prominently featuring his daughter, Tucker, in his TV advertising. Perhaps as a protective father, Mr. Cuccinelli opted not to showcase his five young daughters in his ads. To suggest that a man who has a wife and five daughters doesn’t want the best for them and is somehow waging a “war on women” is on its face preposterous. Had he done so, it might have erased Mr. McAuliffe’s 9 percentage point edge among female voters overall. (Mr. Cuccinelli actually won among white women and among married women 51 percent to 42 percent — but you won’t hear the pundits mention that in any discussion of the gender gap. He also won independents 47 percent to 38 percent.)

“I don’t know why he didn’t [use his daughters],” a source high up in the Obenshain campaign told me. “[It’s] not like we didn’t know it was coming.” As long as the Democrats’ bogus “war on women” meme continues to go unchallenged — and helps win elections — they will continue to use it.

The nail-biter finish, which belied polling in the race, reportedly dismayed the crony capitalist wing of the Republican Party, which was hoping that the conservative Mr. Cuccinelli would be “walloped,” says Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato, so the country club set could wrest control of the GOP from the Tea Party wing. As a consolation prize, the crony capitalists did get one of their own in Mr. McAuliffe, however.

The closeness of the governor’s race also means that Mr. McAuliffe will have no mandate for his liberal tax-and-spend agenda when he takes office in January. “Keep in mind that Terry McAuliffe got less than 50 percent of the vote,” said Virginia Republican Party Chairman Pat Mullins, “so he does not have a mandate to do anything. [W]e still have a House that will block any crazy ideas he may have.” There’s no reason the GOP-dominated House of Delegates should accede, for example, to Mr. McAuliffe’s costly campaign pledge to have Virginia expand its Medicaid rolls under Obamacare — especially after Mr. Cuccinelli’s pointed attacks on the increasingly unpopular health care law late in the campaign are being widely credited for a late surge in support that made the race as close as it was.

That said, Mr. Cuccinelli should keep his political options open for the future. Assuming the recount confirms Mr. Obenshain’s win as attorney general, he will be the presumptive GOP nominee for governor in 2017. That year, Mr. Cuccinelli will still be just 49, and should seek either to win back the attorney general’s office or the lieutenant governorship. Both will be open seats that year — the latter, because Mr. McAuliffe can’t run for re-election and, therefore, Lt. Gov.-elect Ralph Northam will presumably be the Democratic nominee for governor.

There’s precedent for a comeback after narrow election losses: Bill Clinton, for whom Mr. McAuliffe was once fundraiser-in-chief, lost a congressional race in 1974 and also lost his re-election bid for governor in 1980, both by less than 4 percentage points. If Mr. Cuccinelli does attempt a comeback, though, his daughters need to be front and center in the campaign.

Peter Parisi is an editorial writer for The Washington Times.