There’s Something Rotten in Virginia Politics

How a primary election swindle opened the door to the GOP's lunatic fringe.

Even if you haven’t been closely monitoring the Virginia governor’s race, chances are that by now you’ve heard something about the two characters the GOP is running to replace outgoing Republican Bob McDonnell and his number two, Bill Bolling, the current lieutenant governor.

Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and Pastor E.W. Jackson—bishop of Exodus Faith Ministries and president of the cryptically named conservative Christian group Staying True to America’s National Destiny (S.T.A.N.D.)—were nominated to represent their party in the November 5th general election during a closed-door convention on Saturday that drew roughly 8,000 of the state’s most conservative voters.

The nominations make Cuccinelli, who is 44, the youngest GOP candidate for Virginia governor in two decades and Jackson the first African-American to receive the party’s endorsement since 1988 (and only the second since Reconstruction). But the candidates’ distinctions don’t end there. While their predecessors attempted (sometimes unsuccessfully) to shy away from extremist social positions and honor Virginia’s increasingly moderate constituency, Cuccinelli and Jackson are unwavering in their Christianized-Tea Party objectives and have publicly espoused views that make Ted Cruz sound like Karl Marx.

As a gubernatorial candidate Cuccinelli has been playing it safe on the campaign trail. He tacked to the center in his acceptance speech, and his television ads have focused on pragmatic issues like job creation and the plight of the mentally ill. But don’t be fooled. Beneath the starched shirts and power ties is an extremely polarizing culture warrior who has made it abundantly clear that he holds views well outside the Republican mainstream.

Cuccinelli’s political philosophy was perhaps best summed up by Richmond journalist Peter Galuszka, who described the candidate as unyieldingly anti-government, “except where it interferes with his views on sex, gays and marriage.”

A staunch Catholic (he has seven kids), Cuccinelli opposes birth control and earlier this year equated his fight against Obamacare’s contraception mandate with Dr. Martin Luther King’s civil rights legacy. He’s compared the anti-choice movement to the fight to abolish slavery, offended members of his own party when he instructed the state’s public universities to reverse policies that banned discrimination of LGBT people, and lobbied for the enforcement of the state’s unconstitutional “Crimes Against Nature” laws, which would make it a Class 6 felony to get a blow job from your wife.  As AG, Cuccinelli was not above leveraging the power of his office for political purposes. A climate change skeptic, he pursued a bogus two-year fraud investigation against climatologist Michael E. Mann until the Virginia Supreme Court ordered him to stop.

Cuccinelli does have at least one redeeming quality: His formative years among Jesuits appear to have imbued him with a robust, if often flawed, sense of social justice. (He once gave $100,000 in surplus campaign money to a medical clinic for the homeless.) But such glimmers of humanity, which the Cuccinelli camp is trying hard to emphasize, are likely to be overshadowed by the Harvard-educated wing nut his party’s delegates have seen fit to attach him to for the next seven months.

E.W. Jackson, the nominee for Lieutenant Governor, believes that the Christian Bible is the “inerrant Word of God and the infallible rule of faith and conduct.” In 2009, he took issue with President Obama’s inaugural speech assertion that “all religions are equal,” claiming that the President offended Christians by implying their religion isn’t the best one. He’s called gays “very sick people psychologically, mentally and emotionally” and has drawn a direct link between homosexuality and pedophilia. In a “Message to Black Christians” recorded in 2012, Jackson evoked the Book of Exodus to urge black voters to abandon their “slavish devotion” to the Democratic Party and compared Planned Parenthood to the Ku Klux Klan.

If you’re wondering how a state that voted twice for Barack Obama and has been hailed as a beacon of the emerging “New South” managed to wind up with fringe radicals as candidates for its highest offices you can chalk it up to backroom dealing orchestrated by the state’s most conservative Republicans—who overrode the carefully laid succession plans of the governor himself to elevate one of their own without pesky voters getting in the way. In 2011, the GOP agreed to shift from a convention to an open primary to nominate their statewide candidates, hoping to appeal to a broader base. (Virginia gives its political parties wide latitude in determining how they choose their candidates.)

McDonnell had promised to support his second-in-command, Bolling, who had deferred his own ambitions for the Executive Mansion to support the Governor for reelection in 2009.  You know what they say about the best-laid plans. Last June, the Tea Party-stacked central committee of the Virginia Republican Party staged a coup and voted to rescind the planned primary in favor of a closed convention open only to “credential Republicans.” As a rule, voters who are willing to give up a Saturday in May to spend the day casting ballot after ballot are the most ideologically motivated. Bingo. You’ve got your radicals.

Critics of the move say it effectively disenfranchised thousands of the state’s Republican voters, most notably all active duty military. Sensing a bloody turf war, Bolling pulled out of the race “for the good of the party” paving the way for what pollsters correctly opined would be the “coronation” of Cuccinelli at Saturday’s convention.

According to Larry Sabato of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, while Cuccinelli had a good chance of pulling off a primary win, Jackson—who scored only 12,000 votes in his last statewide run for office—didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell without the convention. At best, that could mean serious trouble for the Cuccinelli campaign; at worst. it could mean a very scary four years for the Commonwealth of Virginia.