Fiery nominee brings 'Herman Cain phenomenon' to Virginia governors race

Virginia's Republican nominee for governor, Ken Cuccinelli, is tacking to the center, but Republicans picked a strong conservative, E.W. Jackson, to run for the No. 2 slot. Democrats dub him extreme.

Kyle Green/The Roanoke Times/AP
Gubernatorial candidate and current Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (c.) speaks to supporters during a visit to Roanoke with fellow Republican candidates E. W. Jackson, who is running for lieutenant governor, and Mark Obenshain, the GOP candidate for attorney general.
Kyle Green/The Roanoke Times/AP
E.W. Jackson, the Virginia Republican Party's candidate for lieutenant governor, visits the Roanoke Regional Airport on Monday with fellow GOP candidates for governor and attorney general.

Virginia’s marquee governor’s race got a jolt of the unexpected on Saturday, as Republicans added E.W. Jackson, a political novice and conservative firebrand, as the GOP’s lieutenant governor nominee alongside lightning rod gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli.

But whether that jolt will be a burst of enthusiasm from Mr. Jackson, a minister and attorney, or a fatal shock to a ticket Democrats already derided as extreme and out-of-touch will be a fundamental part of the commonwealth’s 2013 gubernatorial race.

“It’s like the Herman Cain phenomenon,” said Quentin Kidd, a Virginia political analyst and pollster at Christopher Newport University, “only this time he got the nomination.”

The nomination of Jackson and the fate of a ticket lead by Mr. Cuccinelli, no stranger to incendiary rhetoric himself, emphasizes Virginia’s place in the middle of the Republican Party’s ongoing debate about whether electoral success will come through bolder conservative champions or less ideologically rigid candidates.

“Cuccinelli may be drawn into the Jackson orbit in a way that he doesn’t want to be,” says Professor Kidd.

That could prevent Cuccinelli from emphasizing the economic issues and the more personal side of his campaign, which he has highlighted in recent weeks.

On the other hand, “Cuccinelli may be able to tack to the middle by contrasting with Jackson,” Kidd says, and in that way the lieutenant governor “could provide a very helpful foil to Ken Cuccinelli as well.”

Jackson’s addition to the ticket underlined where the Virginia GOP stands in the Republican Party’s ongoing discussion about its future: In the commonwealth, conservatives showed they wanted a more forthright, defiant brand of conservatism.

“I think we learned that the conservative core is far more conservative than people thought it was” in Virginia, Kidd says.

Jackson’s meteoric rise, helped along by a fiery speech on Saturday afternoon, was met with a withering critique from Democrats.

The party’s first African-American nominee for statewide office since the 1980s was savaged by Democrats over his history of controversial statements on a number of topics – he once likened Planned Parenthood to the Klu Klux Klan, said that President Obama harbors “Muslim sensibilities,” and has made a host of statements deriding homosexuality.

“Frankly, I’m rather appalled with the results, with the ideologically narrow scope of the Republican ticket that emerged from Richmond this weekend,” said Vince Callahan, a long-time Republican state legislator who is backing this year’s Democratic nominee, Terry McAuliffe, on a conference call with reporters.

“You’re turning off not only the vast majority of all Virginians but a significant portion of the Republican base," he added.

Jackson is going to have to stand for his record, said Chris Jankowski, the president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, which works to elect Republicans at the lieutenant governor level and lower.

“I saw some things yesterday that I hadn’t seen [about Jackson’s past statements]," said Mr. Jankowksi at a discussion with reporters on Monday.

“No matter how deeply held our views our, politics is about addition and not subtraction,” said Jankowski, a veteran of Virginia politics who attended the convention. “You want to find the common ground and build on that – and to the extent your tone does not build on finding a common ground, that is not helpful.”

However, Democratic insistence on fighting over social issues was more to distract from that party’s candidate, Terry McAuliffe, than it was a substantive critique of commonwealth conservatives, Jankowski said.

“This will be a negative race and [Democrats] will play the social issues as much as possible,” Jankowski said. “We have to keep it on jobs and the role and size and scope of government and remind [voters] that, generally, people think Richmond’s on the right track.”

Mr. McAuliffe, a former mega fundraiser for the Democratic Party who has shown an entrepreneurial streak in recent years, has had his own words thrown back at him as well, including passages from his book where he describes stopping off at an event for party donors on the way home from the hospital with his wife and newborn child.

Helping Jackson’s rise considerably was the party’s decision to hold a convention rather than a statewide primary – and to hold it the same weekend as major graduations at several of the commonwealth’s largest universities. These decisions gave more influence to the party’s most committed activists, many of whom spent 12 hours battling, ballot after ballot, to determine the nomination for lieutenant governor.

“I think everyone thought that he was sort of a heart-and-soul vote,” says Kidd of Jackson.

Other options were Pete Snyder, a wealthy Northern Virginia marketing entrepreneur, or Corey Stewart, the head of a Northern Virginia Board of County Supervisors. Either would have come with far less political baggage and represented in broad strokes, at least, the type of business-friendly Republican that has long prospered in the Old Dominion.

Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, who himself took some critiques for past social views during his 2009 campaign, ran and won convincingly on his “Bob’s for Jobs” theme. He recently brokered a bipartisan transportation deal that had eluded at least a half-dozen of his predecessors.

But the commonwealth’s political history offers some strong indicators that Republicans could triumph in 2013. The state has a long-running streak of electing a governor of the opposite party of the president, for one.

Even if Jackson proves too strident for the overall electorate, Kidd points out that Virginia voters are willing to take only the parts of the ticket they like: Virginians put Republican George Allen in the governor’s mansion in 1993 and future GOP governor Jim Gilmore in the attorney general’s office – but rejected the more right-wing Michael Ferris for lieutenant governor.

There’s also Cuccinelli’s particular history to consider. The man who has long been criticized as too unyielding to win has made political staying power a habit over his career, once holding on to his Northern Virginia seat in the state Senate by under 100 votes.

“They’ve been writing him off and writing him off,” said Janowski, “and he always surprises you.”

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