Rejecting calls for the GOP to be more “moderate” after the party's poor showing in the 2012 presidential election, Virginia Republicans nominated on Saturday in Richmond a trio of very conservative candidates. Heading the GOP’s ticket this fall are current Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli for governor, state Sen. Mark Obenshain for attorney general, and Chesapeake minister Bishop E.W. Jackson for lieutenant governor.
They begin a statewide three-day campaign tour today.
Virginia, a swing state in recent elections, will hold one of only two statewide races in the country this year (New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is expected to win re-election in the other). Commentators will tout it as an early indicator of the prospects for strong conservative candidates in the next round of federal elections.
Cuccinelli has drawn national attention (and scorn) for his strongly pro-life and pro-family stands, as well as the lawsuit Virginia filed against Obamacare. His opponent in November will be Bill Clinton protégé and former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe.
Cuccinelli was unopposed for the nomination after Bill Bolling, the GOP establishment’s preferred candidate, withdrew when the state organization rejected plans for an open primary and instead held a closed convention, which requires delegates to travel to Richmond and therefore favors the GOP’s conservative activist base.
“When did it become extreme to protect children from predators and human traffickers?” Cuccinelli asked the crowd of 8,000 at the Richmond Convention Center, according to the Washington Post. “When did it become extreme to guard our Constitution from overreach? When did it become extreme to secure the freedom of the wrongly convicted? And when did it become extreme to ask government to spend a little less so our economy can grow?”
Cuccinelli also hammered McAuliffe’s leadership of an electric car company with ties to China and his decision to locate a factory in north Mississippi last year.
Jackson was by far the most controversial pick of the night. Critics suggested that Virginia Republicans picked the pastor of Exodus Faith Ministries because he makes Cuccinelli look moderate in comparison. In earlier failed campaigns, he has compared Planned Parenthood to the Ku Klux Klan and accused homosexual activists of trying to sexualize children “at the earliest possible age.”
Jackson was a fringe candidate but by the convention no clear leader had emerged from a field of seven, and the overwhelmingly white crowd seemed eager to welcome its first black statewide candidate since 1988. He got it going by taking aim at President Barack Obama’s Democratic White House and warning the federal government to get “off our backs, off of our property and off of our guns.”
And when he said, “I am not an African-American, I am an American,” the crowd surged to its feet, roaring approval.
GOP moderates were quite concerned when Jackson won the first ballot on the strength of his speech. But they failed to assemble support for an alternative during a wild and wooly process that included accusations that one candidate’s staffer tried to sell an endorsement. When Jackson won 10 hours and four ballots later, establishment types were “pulling their hair out,” said one GOP official.
It’s not clear whether Jackson will be quite the liability to the Cuccinelli ticket that Democrats hope. He’s a former Marine, a former Democrat, and a Harvard Law School graduate who practiced in Boston for 15 years before moving to Chesapeake in 1998, where he retired from law and founded what has become a large church. He’s an impressive speaker who can get crowds riled up without promising much in the way of policy and has also founded a couple of political advocacy organizations.
On the other hand, he was unable to build much of a campaign organization and he raised only a fraction of the support—$141,000—his opponents managed.
The past few election cycles have been fairly close, with Democrats largely controlling Richmond, the northern Virginia suburbs near Washington, and the Chesapeake region, while the Republicans dominate the downstate districts. The Republicans will hope that Jackson can peel enough independents and blacks away from the Democrats to steal a few districts, especially in his home area, and help swing the contest in their direction.