By Carten Cordell │ Watchdog.org, Virginia Bureau
ALEXANDRIA — The Virginia lieutenant governor’s race may quickly overshadow the widely-watched governor’s election for the most diametrically opposed candidates of the year.
The difference between establishment Democrat Sen. Ralph Northam and GOP grassroots rebel E.W. Jackson in campaign style is less like gubernatorial foes Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli and more like Charlie Rose and Liberace.
“In my mind, there couldn’t be a greater contrast between two candidates,” said Quentin Kidd, director of the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. “The only thing they have in common is that they are both from Hampton Roads.”
Jackson rode to GOP nomination on the wings of dynamic speeches and impassioned delegates, but has been waylaid in the press over the past month for controversial comments, numerous bankruptcies and even misspelling the title of his own book.
Meanwhile, Northam overcame a large campaign funding deficit to Democratic opponent Aneesh Chopra in the primary to swing 54 percent of vote and claim the bulk of northern Virginia.
The contest could help widen an already expansive gulf between the Republican and Democratic tickets this fall, pushing the parties to define their campaigns on potentially polarizing issues and controversy.
“It’s really a ticket now of passion versus strategy,” Kidd said. “Ken Cuccinelli is passionate, he’s cause-oriented and knows who he is and what he’s about. I think the same thing about E.W. Jackson and, to a lesser extent, (GOP attorney general candidate) Mark Obenshain.
“Terry McAuliffe is strategy-oriented, and Ralph Northam and (Democratic attorney general candidate) Mark Herring represent consistency. So it’s a ticket of passion and cause versus strategy and consistency.”
The gubernatorial battle between Cuccinelli and McAuliffe was already projected to be contentious, with McAuliffe leading 44 to 41 percent in a June 10 Rasmussen poll. But Jackson, who has spoken out in opposition of issues like abortion and gay rights, can frame the election on stark ideological divides.
“This really does set up, I think to some extent in all three races, an ideological debate — certainly, at least, on social issues. There is no question on social issues,” said Harry Wilson, director for the Institute for Policy & Opinion Research at Roanoke College.
But while the Republican ticket is backed by a passionate, issue-driven base, the trap Democrats will try to lay is defining the GOP by Jackson’s stance on social legislation, said John McGlennon, government professor at William & Mary University.
“I think that the Democrats will certainly be arguing that the Republicans represent a preference for ideological purity, and focus on social issues, while the Democrats will say that they’re looking to deal with the issues confronting the electorate — jobs, in particular,” he said.
In this strategy, Northam is the perfect foil to Jackson. A pediatric neurologist, Northam has focused his campaign on his repudiation of the social legislation recently brought to the General Assembly by Republican lawmakers.
“I am sure Terry McAuliffe will love to talk about that more,” Geoff Skelley, political analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said. “He sees it as a position where he can go after Cuccinelli, so I think Democrats would love to make the race about (social legislation).”
Jackson tried to stem the recent controversy at a press conference Wednesday where he explained the reasons behind a serious of bankruptcies and admitted to drug use in his youth.
Sensing the Democrats’ shift to focus on his stance on social issues, the minister tried to head off attacks in a statement released shortly after Northam’s victory Tuesday night.
“While Northam wants to campaign on divisive social issues and a commitment to violate our Second Amendment rights, I look forward to continuing the conversation with Virginians about better education through parental choice, strengthening our economy through jobs and economic liberty, creating a fair playing field for all businesses in Virginia by ending corporate welfare, and seeking real solutions to reduce costs and improve healthcare by standing against Obamacare.”
Skelley said Jackson’s inexperience puts him at a slight disadvantage, though it’s too early in the race to predict outcomes.
“I think the general consensus is that E.W. Jackson is running a little bit uphill,” he said. “Unless there is a major shift in this race where Ken Cuccinelli gets a large lead that can pull Jackson along, he may be always sitting in an underdog position.
“But to a large extent, the voters don’t know who these guys are, so the (goal) for each of them is to define the opponent.”
Email Carten Cordell at [email protected]