Cross-posted at Blue Virginia
The most searing lesson of President Obama's electoral slaughter of Mitt Romney just 3 weeks ago is a simple one -- define yourself and your opponent, early, often and effectively. Both the Obama campaign's characterizations of the president as a progressive fighter for the middle class and of Romney as an out-of-touch gazillionaire elitist fit like a glove and worked.
This lesson resonated over the past week as the national press and blogosphere suddenly discovered that Virginia has a governor's race this year, and it's going to be a doozy. Predictably, and happily, much of the coverage focused on the facts that: 1) Repub AG Ken Cuccinelli is an ultra-extremist crackpot and 2) Repub LG Bill Bolling is awfully pissed at the way that Cuccinelli stole the crown from his coronation, and just may scheme to get back at him with an independent campaign.
The other piece of the coverage and discussion, though, has been a surprisingly negative first impression of Terry McAuliffe -- the presumptive Democratic nominee (unless awesome former US Rep. Tom Perriello jumps in the race). The WaPo showed its "balance" by framing the race as one between hyper-partisans on both sides -- this despite McAuliffe's lifelong reputation as a moderate businessman, whose ties to Bill Clinton could only be interpreted as "radical" by the tea party crowd.
Meanwhile, a number of progressive commenters on blogs and the WaPo comments section demonstrated their nervousness about whether McAuliffe could actually beat the scariest candidate for governor we've ever seen in Virginia. Many seemed to define T-Mac as a Beltway insider type just not ready to pound the cobblestones of ol' Virginny.
That actually was my impression of Terry four years ago when he tried to make the jump from Washington power broker to Virginia gubernatorial candidate without having taken the time to prepare the voters or himself for that leap. In the four years since, however, I have watched him do the hard work of hitting pretty much every local Virginia Democratic campaign event and fundraiser he could find. If there's a Democratic dogcatcher from Albemarle to Warrenton that he hasn't met yet, I'd be surprised. He has shown by burning all that shoe leather that he is not some fly-by-night dilettante but a candidate willing to listen, learn, do what it takes, and entrench himself in the state.
Meeting and endearing himself to Democratic activists and candidates statewide, however, was only step one, a foundation to build on. Now he has to introduce himself to the vast majority of voters, who according to the polls, have no clue who he is.
Considering this, it was not a good sign that the McAuliffe campaign chose this week, as the race erupted into national view, to stay stone silent. It's time for them to define their candidate -- before he is defined in the worst terms by others -- and they have no time to waste.
Terry does not start out with a particularly positive public image, but I believe that he can turn that around if he and his campaign make a concerted effort to do so. For him to become our vehicle to beat the wretched Cuccinelli will require directly confronting -- not sweeping under the rug -- several major challenges to his image. These include:
1) The millionaire challenge -- yes, America just rejected another rich businessman for the highest office in the land, making this a not very good time to have anything in common with the Mittster. Beyond the basic image question is the example that Romney's long business career created a record that was used so effectively against him -- from offshoring jobs to evading taxes.
I actually think this challenge can be beaten down and even turned into an advantage by a skillful campaign, for three reasons. First, Romney's problem was NOT that he was a businessman, but that his business and political career were both focused on the transfer of wealth from the 99% to the 1%. So many of his actions and his policies on taxes, regulation, the budget, etc., reinforced the same message, it was not all that difficult for his opponent to connect the dots and drive the point home.
Terry, by contrast, can run on being the anti-Romney: the progressive businessman who respects the limits of the marketplace and the value of government. He will need to weave this narrative carefully in order to motivate Democrats, who definitely don't want a Romney type at the top of the ticket, to go to the polls. Still, in purple Virginia, it is not a bad thing to have a candidate with extensive private sector knowledge and experience, particularly if he articulates how he sees bringing the right lessons from the business community to government.
The second reason this should not be a serious disadvantage is that it is hard to see how Cuccinelli, who attacks the very idea of government regulating business over environmental, health or any other factors, could credibly attack McAuliffe on this issue, without confusing his tea party supporters and the corporate moguls lined up to write checks to him.
The third reason that this doesn't have to be a major barrier could be summed up in 2 words: Mark Warner
2) The Virginian challenge -- Curiously, one word I noticed crop up frequently in on-line comments about McAuliffe was "carpet bagger." Perhaps it's not enough to point out that Terry has actually lived in Virginia over 20 years, since the paved-in-gold streets of McLean are not everyone's vision of the "real Virginia." Nor is it enough to point out how many major state candidates these days are from somewhere else. (Like: Ken Cuccinelli, NJ; George Allen, CA; Tim Kaine, MN; Mark Warner, IN; Bob McDonnell, PA -- need I freakin' go on here?)
In fact, this is more a question of style than actual fact. I'm not going to encourage Terry to take the embarrassing Mark Warner route of sponsoring NASCAR teams. But there is a certain pose that candidates in the Commonwealth are expected to strike.
Call it the myth of the Virginia Gentleman. The Virginia Gentleman is expected to be somehow above politics (think Monticello or Mount Vernon) and yet a man of the people; comfortable whether hunting foxes in the highlands or squirrels in the lowlands; always willing to take the principled stand (think John Warner refusing to support Oliver North) but also skillful in playing politics behind closed doors; likable but somehow distant, as if already chiseled into stone before his time. (Sorry, ladies, for all this gender-biased language, but this archetype may explain why we've had so few female leaders in the state.)
Rather than trying to explain it, I would simply suggest studying video, pictures and the career of John Warner, who made himself into the ultimate Virginia political archetype.
The same John Warner who, by the way, was born in...Washington, DC.
3) The seriousness challenge -- we come now to the most intangible yet perhaps most serious of Terry's image issues. His problem is not likability, as he comes across pleasantly both on the stage and in person. He has an infectious, almost child-like joie de vivre that makes it easy to see why he's been so successful in getting rich donors to part with gobs of their money. What he does not convey as well, however, is the kind of seriousness of purpose that we expect from our leaders.
Somehow, his goofy smile and less-than-crisp presentation and that lingering suspicion that he's just a rich guy leaving the boredom of Washington, DC on a lark to find a new kingdom to conquer -- all combine to raise doubts about whether he's got the right stuff both to beat the Kook and govern the state well for 4 years afterwards.
To be fair, many politicians convey seriousness when they don't actually have any, and many people who deserve to be taken seriously aren't just because of how they come across. Well, we still have to deal with the parts of life that suck. And yes, like it or not, politicians do need to reinvent themselves from time to time.
To beat this challenge, Terry will have to refine his manner a bit in public. It may mean smiling less, avoiding over-talking, listening well and respectfully, studying Virginia's issues furiously and having a crisp answer ready to go on each of them. Terry's buddy Hillary Clinton actually gave one of the most masterful demonstrations of how to manage such a transition when she made the leap from First Lady to junior US Senator. She showed both the discipline and the humility to learn from others, essential qualities to display when one is trying to make a good impression as the new kid on the block.
Terry of course must be ready to hit home runs when asked the most basic questions demanded of any candidate, like: Why are you running? What are your top priorities for the state? How will your experiences in life help you accomplish these goals? All these answers must weave together into a theme, a story, an image that makes the voters feel clear and reassured about who this guy really is.
Defining Ken Cuccinelli will be easy since he has a long record of extremism to tap into -- no exaggeration necessary! And the fact that so many Virginians have barely a clue who Terry is presents the advantage of a relatively clean slate. But of course that can be a curse too if others grab the chalk first and make indelible impressions. And we all know how talented the GOP is at the fine art of mudslinging.
T-Mac and his campaign need to build on the goodwill they have established among Democrats statewide, get their story in shape and start introducing him to the public in a big way -- ASAP.