National Organization for Marriage founder Maggie Gallagher has a curious op-ed in the Washington Post today in which she insists that Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli is behind in the polls because he isn’t talking enough about his opposition to reproductive rights.
Cuccinelli sure has what Gallagher calls “conservative credentials” on the issue of choice. For instance, when he was in the state legislature, he sponsored a “personhood” bill that would have banned abortions in all circumstances and even criminalized some common forms of birth control. Cuccinelli has, understandably, been trying to run from this record in his effort to win over more moderate voters. But this, Gallagher argues, is what’s hurting him:
There is still time for Cuccinelli to turn things around, but the fact that someone with his conservative credentials speaks this way underscores that there is a conventional wisdom about how candidates ought to address, or avoid, social issues during campaigns. And Cuccinelli’s standing in the race underscores that this approach is dangerous for the GOP.
The truce strategy demoralizes the GOP base and makes it hard for the grass roots to care about Republican candidates. Conservative candidates are advised to deflect or retreat when social issues are raised, and their refusal to speak clearly and hold the line allows Democratic candidates to adopt more extreme positions, energizing their own base and unleashing a flood of money at no political cost. Democrats are confident that their opponents will not make an issue of their positions. Republican candidates’ apparent discomfort discussing such issues makes it look like they have something to hide, confirming to many voters Democratic suggestions that GOP candidates’ positions are extreme.
On an issue such as abortion, about which Americans are fundamentally ambivalent, victory depends on how “pro-life” and “pro-choice” are defined. Republicans’ self-imposed silence allows Democrats to define pro-life in ways that help them politically. Thus, Democrats do not have to justify their positions on infanticide, late-term abortions or permitting unborn baby girls to be killed just because of their gender.
Gallagher suggests that Cuccinelli instead follow the “winning strategy” of New Jersey Senate candidate Steve Lonegan, who enthusiastically attacked Democrat Cory Booker for his pro-choice record…before Booker beat him handily in the general election.
Democrats campaigned on the truce strategy in 2012 and will continue to use it until GOP candidates come up with a more effective political response. The winning strategy would be to aggressively define social issues on Democrats’ weakest grounds, to make them pay for their unqualified support of abortion on any grounds.
Steve Lonegan, the New Jersey Republican whose long-shot Senate campaign stalled when he supported the government shutdown in a blue state, nonetheless had the right idea on this issue. “What abortion would you make illegal?” he asked Cory Booker in a recent debate.
Memo to GOP candidates: The best defense is a good offense. When you are being relentlessly attacked as an abortion extremist by people who support late-term and/or taxpayer-funded abortions, self-imposed silence about your beliefs and values is not an effective political response. Calling Democrats on their own extremism is the pathway to victory.