PRUDEN: What do Virginia’s losses say about next year and 2016?

Earl Long, the “late and great governor of Louisiana,” once boasted that he knew how to fix an election, and a voting machine was no more difficult to master than a paper ballot. “I can make a voting machine play ‘Home on the Range’ all night long,” he said.

The wizards of politics and the shamans of the dark science of grooming public opinion never grow weary of gaming the system, trying to make it sing their favorite tunes. They sometimes do it by framing questions and anointing the right candidate, and sometimes by getting as close as they can without getting caught at something deeply sinister.

The political scientists, at work deep in the dungeons where science pursues the formula for alchemy, put Virginia in their test tubes in the wake of the week’s work at the polls. What happened? And where’s the why and the therefore? Most important of all, what does it tell about the prospects elsewhere for next year and two years after that?

Nearly every Democrat, except maybe his mother, concedes now that he is safely elected that Terry McAuliffe aspires only to work on the shady side of the street and in the alleys that lead to promising cul-de-sacs. How was he elected governor in the first place in a nice place like Virginia, and why was it such a squeaker?

The polls, the pundits and the usual sources of what passes for wisdom all said he would be a runaway winner, closing with a margin in the double digits. He didn’t come close to that, and if the campaign had lasted another three or four days, he might not have won at all.

Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican, found the hot button, the sweet spot of the voters’ fears, too late. He found his voice against Obamacare too late to repair the damage done by the McAuliffe millions invested over the final six months in little lies, medium-sized lies and big lies, all spread across the television screens.

The Republicans forgot that you need a smart candidate to beat even a bad candidate. Mr. Cuccinelli’s heart was in the right place, but his head was stuck in the warm and cozy comfort of the state nominating convention, surrounded by friends and admirers.

Virginia’s curious system of primaries and conventions, alternating at the party’s will, to choose candidates for statewide offices can shield nominees from the heat and anger of public opinion. Supporters of the system argue that over several cycles, there’s not much difference in the performance of the candidates. Some are good, and some are not so good, on the stump and in the field.

But conventions can be controlled, with difficulty, and primaries can’t. Conventions can be stampeded by a candidate with a sharp and eloquent tongue, but primaries require dancing on a high wire and no net. Politics, after all, is a game of risks.

Sometimes an unlikely dancer catches fire in a primary and burns the house down. Two years ago, the Republicans salivated at the prospect of regaining control of the U.S. Senate. The candidates anointed by the party establishment, who looked like locks in Nevada, Missouri, Indiana and Delaware, turned out to have the moxie of pet rocks.

Upstart candidates, with little experience in statewide races and with little judgment in when to keep bizarre opinions to themselves, won instead, and earned only the disdain of the Republican establishment, which went into a deep sulk and offered no help. The Democrats kept the Senate, remaining under the thumb of Harry Reid.

Mr. Cuccinelli got the thumb, too, but in the eye, from establishment Republicans. He got no help even when he began making a race of it. Voters can always confound the experts, no matter how wise the experts think they are. A day late and a dollar short is the saddest refrain in politics.

Mr. McAuliffe, taking due diligence, made the usual nice noises on the morning after the morning after. He’ll have to deal with a Republican legislature in Richmond, and he promises to practice something called “bipartisanship.” That invariably translates to “We’ll be your friends if you’ll just be more like us.”

Bipartisanship, which nobody has seen much of in a long time, requires compromise, splitting the difference on contentious issues, listening to an opponent make his case. It’s difficult to see how anyone can split the differences that divide us now. Good will is nice, but will alone is never good enough. The lessons unlearned two years ago went unlearned again this year. Winning takes more than a song, no matter who plays it.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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