RNC: Hey, don't blame us for Cuccinelli's loss

A footnote to Erika’s post about lessons to take from Cuccinelli’s almost-but-not-quite upset. Fun fact: The RNC spent $9 million to help Bob McDonnell win the governor’s seat four years ago. This year, in a much tougher election, they spent $3 million on Ken Cuccinelli, with Cooch so strapped for cash at the end that he had to abandon the D.C. media market the last two weeks. Not all of his money problems were the RNC’s fault — McAuliffe dominated Cuccinelli in fundraising (as expected) and centrist outside groups like the Chamber of Commerce ignored him — but the big drop-off in spending between 2009 and 2013 naturally has people pointing fingers at Reince Priebus and company.

We’re getting a bad rap, says the RNC:

Republican National Committee allies are offering an interesting defense to critics saying the campaign committee could have done more to help the Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli: Blame former RNC chairman Michael Steele.

Steele dropped a staggering $9 million in 2009 into Governor Bob McDonnell’s race despite the fact that McDonnell never trailed in a single poll.

“In my opinion, it was just frivolous spending,” says a Republican source close to the campaign in Virginia. “We were paying off that race in 2011 when we should have been getting ready for the presidential,” the source says. “It handcuffed us.”…

Another data point is the New Jersey gubernatorial race in 2009, when the RNC spent around $3 million to help now-governor Chris Christie – about the same amount it spent on Cuccinelli, but in a more expensive state.

In other words, the reason the drop-off over the past four years is so sharp isn’t because the RNC short-changed Cuccinelli, it’s because Michael Steele stupidly showered cash on a candidate in 2009 who didn’t really need it. Jim Geraghty (who’s compiled a nifty list of reasons to blame, or not blame, the RNC) adds several other exculpating factors. The RNC actually outspent the DNC in Virginia; outside groups and wealthy Republican donors, whose contributions to pro-Cuccinelli Super PACs would have been unlimited, didn’t swoop in to fill the fundraising gap (possibly/probably because they disliked Cooch’s tea-party credentials) and the few who tried like the RGA didn’t do a smart job of spending their money; and nearly every poll had Cuccinelli losing badly, which meant the RNC might reasonably have believed it’d be throwing its money away by spending more in Virginia. There are lots of important races next year that they’ll need to spend on. They don’t have money to burn. Gotta pick and choose.

And yet the fact remains: When it came time to vote, Cuccinelli wasn’t a lost cause. Why didn’t the RNC see that coming? Geraghty notes that they ended up spending $1.5 million in New Jersey to help pad Christie’s landslide while Cooch was all but abandoned down the stretch by national Republicans. Said one Cuccinelli advisor to WaPo, “There are a lot of questions people are going to be asking and that is, was leaving Cuccinelli alone in the first week of October, a smart move? We were on our own. Just look at the volume [of ads].” What makes that inexcusable isn’t that the RNC’s polling didn’t show the race being tight (although that’s … pretty inexcusable), it’s the fact that the ruinous ObamaCare rollout of the past three weeks gave Republicans every reason to believe there might be a pro-GOP bounce near the end. That wasn’t worth an extra million? Jonah Goldberg wonders:

In fairness, the Republican Governor’s Association did help Cuccinelli, but it came too early. The RNC treated him like a write-off. I can understand that temptation when Cuccinelli looked like a sure loser. But I don’t understand why, when ObamaCare became a big issue, the RNC couldn’t have done more. I’m sure it’s hard to ramp up at the last second. But so what? Things are going to be hard in lots of ways for as far as the eye can see. Hard can’t be an excuse anymore. As for the more moderate Republican donors who stayed away from Cuccinelli, I certainly don’t think they’re obliged to give money to anyone or anything they disagree with. So maybe they’re pro-choice. Maybe they call themselves “socially liberal but fiscally conservative” (don’t get me started). Fine. But on the issues that make them Republican, McAuliffe will still be far more of a disaster than Cuccinelli ever would have been. McAuliffe says his first priority for the legislative session is accepting the expanded Medicare option under ObamaCare. That’s bad enough, but does anyone doubt that another, equally important, priority of his will be to prepare the ground for a Clinton candidacy should she run?

Forget about the pros and cons of Cuccinelli the politician for a second. Forget even whether an O-Care backlash really did help Cooch close the gap; that’s debatable. The fact is, Democrats on the Hill would have identified ObamaCare as the culprit if Cuccinelli had eked out a narrow victory over a guy who massively outspent him and maintained a sizable polling lead until the end. If you want red-state Dems to run screaming from the ACA, shocking a Clinton crony who looked poised for an easy win in a bellwether state could have done the trick. Which is not to say all is lost: There are a few dopey liberal pundits on Twitter this morning insisting that Virginia was a “victory for ObamaCare” or something because McAuliffe managed to survive, but rest assured, that’s not the lesson being drawn by Mark Pryor and Mary Landrieu given the narrowness of the margin. Even so, an outright win for Cuccinelli would have sent a much more powerful message. So why didn’t the RNC — and outside groups, and Republican millionaires/billionaires — do more to make it happen? They weren’t really more interested in seeing a tea-party star get his “comeuppance” than seizing power in a purple state like Virginia, were they?

And by the way: No, the fake libertarian didn’t cost Cuccinelli the election.