At the end of their two-day convention on Saturday, Virginia Republicans had nominated the most conservative ticket in the state’s history. At the top, of course, is Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the Tea Party zealot who has used his office to build a national following among conservative activists. In his three years as attorney general, Cuccinelli has filed suit against the Obama administration (challenging the Affordable Care Act), investigated climate scientists (for allegedly falsifying data), and attacked abortion providers, working to undermine reproductive rights throughout the commonwealth.
For attorney general, Republicans chose Mark D. Obenshain, a three-term member of the state senate, and son of Richard Obenshain, a key figure in the history of the Virginia GOP (he died in a plane crash in 1978, just months after receiving the party’s Senate nomination). Like Cuccinelli, Obenshain stands at the right-wing of the Republican Party. But he’s less outspoken, both because of his position—state senators are prominent, but not as prominent as statewide officials—and because of his district, which contains a large (and liberal) student population, on account of James Madison University.
If there was a surprise pick of the convention, it was for lieutenant governor. Seven candidates fought for the nomination, and there were several votes held to determine the ultimate winner (in order to claim the nomination, one candidate has to receive more 50 percent or more of the vote). Fueled by the same grassroots energy that elevated Cuccinelli to the top of the ticket, E.W. Jackson—a Chesapeake-based minister—took a majority of all ballots after four rounds of voting, winning the nomination and becoming the Virginia GOP’s first African American statewide candidate in a quarter-century (Maurice Dawkins, another black minister, challenged Democrat Chuck Robb for an open Senate seat in 1988).
Two things are noteworthy about Jackson. First, he has little—if any—political experience. At most, he was a candidate for last year’s Republican Senate nomination, which he lost (in a huge landslide) to former governor (and senator) George Allen. And second, he is easily the most right-wing candidate running for statewide office in Virginia this year. Yes, that includes Cuccinelli. And unlike the attorney general, Jackson has never had to appeal to voters, which has freed him to say whatever he wants—a key part of his political appeal, and a reason to doubt his viability.
Over the last several years, Jackson has denounced the repeal of "don’t ask, don’t tell" as an attack on religious freedom—“When homosexuality is given protected status, Christians are muzzled or persecuted for their beliefs, and their First Amendment rights are trampled”—attacked LGBT Americans as “sick people psychologically, mentally, and emotionally,” and denounced gay-rights supporters as more destructive than the Ku Klux Klan and other groups that terrorized and murdered African Americans throughout the Jim Crow period. He has also attacked the “Democrat Party” for creating “an unholy alliance between certain so-called civil rights leaders and Planned Parenthood, which has killed unborn black babies by the tens of millions.” And there, as well, Jackson presents Planned Parenthood as more destructive than the Klan. A claim that, for the vast majority of people, doesn’t stand to scrutiny.
Jackson is a relative newcomer to Virginia politics, but he’s a familiar type of figure to anyone who has followed the Republican Party over the last four years. The election of Barack Obama brought a parade of “black conservatives” to the fore: Allen West, Herman Cain, Alveda King, Ben Carson, and, in Virginia, E.W. Jackson. Each presents him or herself as a more “authentic” representative of black America, and a foil to the president. They use the language of Tea Party conservatism and present other African Americans as victims of a manipulative Democratic Party. In his documentary “Runaway Slave,” for example, activist C.L. Bryant quotes a parade of black conservatives who accuse liberals of using the welfare state to keep African Americans on a “plantation” of dependency.
African Americans have yet to give support to anyone from this wing from the Republican Party, but this hasn’t stopped white conservatives from embracing them. Indeed, at one point, Herman Cain was the frontrunner for the Republican Party presidential nomination, propelled by his promise to show President Obama a “real black man.”
It seems a similar dynamic was at work in Richmond this past weekend. According to Errin Whack and Ben Pershing of The Washington Post, the convention crowd "erupted as Jackson vowed to 'get the government off our backs, off our property, out of our families, out of our health care and out of our way.'"
It’s hard not to see this as an attempt—by white conservatives—to compensate for accusations of racism. To say, in effect, that their opposition to Obama can’t possibly have anything to do with race—after all, they support this black conservative. When I was reporting on the Republican presidential primary, I heard as much from attendees of the Values Voter Summit, who said that—if Cain were nominated—“No one would call him a racist.”
In any case, Jackson is now the Virginia GOP’s nominee for lieutenant governor, and this poses a problem for the party.
Look at the landscape of this election. Republicans enter the Virginia gubernatorial race with two key advantages—enthusiasm and a favorable electorate. It’s smaller, older, whiter, and more conservative than the one that voted in last year’s presidential election. If the Virginia GOP were running a center-right technocrat like Bob McDonnell (or on the Democratic side, Mark Warner), there’s no question it would prevail over Terry McAuliffe and his fractured, weakened Virginia Democratic Party.
But Ken Cuccinelli isn’t a technocrat—he’s a far right ideologue. That doesn’t mean he can’t win, but he is a gamble. And if you want to sail him through the election, you’ll need to do as much as possible to hide his most unpopular views.
Jackson brings them to the forefront. There’s no doubt his campaign will talk about same-sex marriage and abortion, which—in the process—will highlight Cuccinelli’s adherence to a strict social conservatism. And even if Jackson shows discipline as a candidate, there’s still the fact of his record, which is loud and incredibly easy to find.
Terry McAuliffe is not a good candidate and the Virginia Democratic Party is not a strong organization, and by nominating two far-right candidates, Republicans have given both an important lifeline. McAuliffe, for instance, doesn’t have to contend with a personally popular opponent—instead, he just needs to out-fundraise and out-organize. If he can do both—and make the gubernatorial electorate look more like the presidential one—he’ll win. And Jackson is a walking, talking gift to Democratic opposition researchers.
If there’s a danger, it’s that Democrats could get too complacent. Remember, the electorate still favors Republicans. Yes, Cuccinelli and Jackson are comically extreme candidates for office. But given who actually votes in Virginia gubernatorial elections—older white people, more or less—that doesn’t mean they can’t win.
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