Virginia Republicans Panicking Over Their Choice for Lieutenant Governor

Beth Reinhard

A minister who compared gays to pedophiles and Planned Parenthood to the Klu Klux Klan is not the No. 2 candidate Republican Party reformers had in mind for the marquee race of 2013.

Neither did the top of the ticket, Republican gubernatorial nominee Ken Cuccinelli, who has been downplaying his own socially conservative record in favor of a more mainstream message focused on the economy.

So how in the world did archconservative African-American pastor E. W. Jackson cinch his party’s nomination for lieutenant governor of Virginia on Saturday night?

Blame Virginia’s quirky political process, a raucous convention speech and a racial undercurrent for vaulting Jackson—an also-ran in the 2012 Republican primary for the U.S. Senate—onto a stepping stone to the top job in one of the closely watched swing states in the country. Blame Cuccinelli, who steered the party away from holding a potentially more competitive primary and toward a convention that ensured his nomination but left the lieutenant governor’s slot up to only a few thousand hard-core activists to fill.

Jackson’s unexpected entrance into the Virginia statewide elections this year is one of the starkest examples of the challenges facing the GOP as it tries to broaden its appeal on the way to 2016.  

“We learned a lot of lessons in 2012 that we’re trying to point out to people, but not all the people are going to listen,” said Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary who helped lead the national party’s sweeping examination of the 2012 election and produce a 97-page report of recommendations.

A more informal but similar soul-searching is taking place in Virginia, where the Republican establishment is worried the party will be better known for requiring women seeking abortions to get ultrasounds than for passing a sweeping transportation funding deal. A small group of Republican donors, business leaders, and former elected officials has met in Richmond twice since April about the tea-party’s movement’s impact on the GOP. According to a participant in both meetings, the group is concerned that Cuccinelli is too conservative to win a general election in state that voted twice for President Obama—and that was before Jackson joined the ticket.

After Jackson was nominated, Fleischer posted on Twitter, “Jackson's anti-gay slurs are indefensible.” Jackson has called gay people “perverted and “very sick people.” He was less overt in his convention speech, though he referred to protecting traditional families.

“If you’re going to grow the party, it’s helpful to nominate candidates who are deeply conservative but inclusive of other people, as opposed to condemnatory,” Fleischer said. “To denounce people in such a fashion is not how you grow the party.”

Jackson's rhetoric puts Cuccinelli—whose own opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion has earned him a loyal conservative base of support—in a tough spot.  He and the Republican Party have a strong motivation in keeping the politically inexperienced Jackson afloat: With control of the state Senate evenly split between the two parties, the lieutenant governor breaks tie votes.

Forced into an awkward arranged marriage, Cuccinelli’s top advisers have urged Jackson to put aside his social crusades and reinforce their campaign’s message on job growth. But until the campaign is comfortable that Jackson is on board with the plan, Cuccinelli is expected to keep his distance from Jackson after completing a two-day statewide tour with him on Tuesday.

“We are not going to be defending our running mates’ statements, now or in the future,” Cuccinelli said in a written statement on Monday that sought to strike a balance between asserting his independence and not throwing Jackson overboard. “The people of Virginia need to get comfortable with each candidate individually, and that's what this process is all about."

Not if the Democratic Party has its way. With gubernatorial nominee Terry McAuliffe facing a Republican-friendly electorate in November and struggling to explain his less successful business ventures, Democrats immediately seized on the nomination of the controversial minister from Chesapeake.

The Virginia Democratic Party circulated a side-by-side comparison of inflammatory quotes by Cuccinelli and Jackson on homosexuality, abortion, and President Obama. Democratic operatives also circulated a video of Cuccinelli calling Jackson a “powerful, powerful fighter for first principles” that is likely to become fodder for television attack ads. One liberal blog posted under the headline, “This is the lunatic Virginia tea-party Republicans just nominated for lieutenant governor.”

McAuliffe called Jackson and the nominee for attorney general, Mark Obenshain, Cuccinelli’s “ideological twins” in an e-mail blast on Monday. That’s expected to become central line of attack as McAuliffe tries to undercut Cuccinelli’s efforts to emphasize his agenda to cut taxes and create jobs.

"Jackson's nomination will reinforce for voters that Cuccinelli's extreme antiwoman, antigay, anti-middle class agenda will make Virginia an unwelcoming place for families and businesses,” said Danny Kanner, a spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association. "Cuccinelli could have made his preference for a different lieutenant governor nominee known if he had one—like he did in the AG's race—but he didn't, because he shares the same hateful, extreme views espoused by his new running mate."

Cuccinelli declined to intervene in the seven-candidate primary, campaign sources said, in part because he anticipated racially tinged criticism for getting in the way of an African-American candidate. Jackson joins a small but prominent circle of charismatic black conservatives that includes former presidential candidate Herman Cain and former Rep. Allen West of Florida (West, who attended the convention, endorsed one of Jackson’s rivals.)

“I am proud to say that I am not an African-American. I am an American!” declared Jackson, drawing roaring applause from convention-goers at the Richmond Coliseum. Candidates who look and sound like Jackson have a unique appeal at a time when Democrats can boast of electing the first African-American president and some of President Obama’s critics have gone so far as to question his U.S. citizenship.

While Jackson’s addition to the slate complicates Cuccinelli’s campaign, it doesn’t guarantee a tailspin. As a Harvard Law School graduate and former Marine, Jackson brings some obvious assets to the race. The top candidates run separately in Virginia, so it’s possible for a split-ticket result in November. One recent example: When Republican George Allen ran for governor in 1993, a conservative homeschooling champion, Mike Farris, won the nomination to be lieutenant governor. Allen kept his distance and won, while Farris was defeated by Democrat Don Beyer.

“It’s not clear that the bottom of the ticket will have tremendous influence on the top,” said Bob Holsworth, founding director of the Center for Public Policy and the Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University. “Jackson is such a formidable public persona, however, that it’s hard to imagine him shrinking into the backdrop. It will be fascinating to see if the Republican Party lets him drift on his own or whether they help him be competitive.”

Democrats tried and failed to make the governor’s race a referendum on social issues in 2009 when conservative Republican Bob McDonnell led the ticket. Keeping his focus on jobs and the economy, McDonnell won in an election that laid the groundwork for the anti-Obama wave of 2010.

“Before everybody pronounces the death knell of the Republican ticket in 2013, they should remember that national dynamics and Obama’s approval numbers will have as much to do with this race as anything else,” said former Rep. Tom Davis, whose wife, Jeannemarie, ran unsuccessfully against Jackson.

Davis, a moderate, said he would back Jackson despite his antigay views. “How can I support someone who supports 'Obamacare?' ” he asked, referring to the Democratic ticket. “That’s the choice. Control of the state Senate is at stake.”