What does Ken Cuccinelli’s narrow loss in the Virginia governor’s race tell us about the future of the GOP?

First, the GOP’s conventional wisdom was wrong. The narrow margin shows, despite being outspent by margins of at least 2-1 (and more in the final weeks), Cuccinelli came within 2 and one-half points of beating Terry McAuliffe. This race was eminently winnable.

Cuccinelli lost, in part, because the GOP elites’ conventional wisdom killed his chances. They dubbed him as too “controversial,” “divisive,” and “strident” on the social issues to win in a purple state like Virginia. The Democrats were all in, while the RNC, the RGA, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—to name three big players who helped propel Bob McDonnell to victory in 2009—stood on the sidelines. The consultant prejudices of the “high rollers” became a self-fulfilling prophecy for Cuccinelli.

The Chamber of Commerce contributed $973,000 to McDonnell in 2009—and nothing to Cuccinelli. The RGA increased its contribution, but unlike the DGA (which gave directly to the McAuliffe campaign), the RGA ran its own ads early and left Cuccinelli without resources to run TV ads on Obamacare in the final and most crucial days of the campaign.

But the most indefensible decision was that of the Republican National Committee, which spent $6 million less in Virginia this year than it did in 2009. Worse, of the $6 million it allocated to candidates in 2013, it split the money equally between Virginia (a key battleground state) and New Jersey (where Christie faced no serious opposition).

The RNC has some serious explaining to do, and to date has not offered much of excuse.

Secondly, the GOP must come up with a more effective response to the “war on women” attacks than silence, retreat, and soft-focus ads. The Democrats devoted 16 percent of their $30 million ad budget to ads mentioning abortion, even more if other “anti-woman” memes are added to the equation. Cuccinelli spent virtually nothing defining his own prolife views, or attacking McAuliffe’s abortion extremism.

“Social issues” (read: abortion and gay marriage) are the only issues that the consulting and donor class have adopted, with the intensity of a faith tenet that the best strategy when attacked is simply not to respond. McAuliffe spent over $5 million attacking Cuccinelli as an anti-woman abortion extremist. Either those attacks had no effect or there is an effect that needs to be countered with ads.

There are only two logical conclusions to be drawn: One, McAuliffe was an idiot to waste $5 million on those ads. OrCuccinelli’s campaign idiotically refused to invest resources in rebutting their argument, especially pivoting and attacking the Democrats’ abortion extremism.The latter is much more likely.

What would such an ad look like? The possibilities are endless, but what about something like this: “I’m Ken Cuccinelli. Terry McAuliffe is lying about me to cover up his extreme record on abortion. I care about the women and children of Virginia and that’s why, unlike my opponent, I want to make sure all medical facilities including abortion clinics are regulated and inspected, so a Gosnell horror story doesn’t occur in our state. People of good will disagree on abortion—but, unlike McAuliffe’s pro-abortion extremism, Virginians can come together around reasonable abortion regulations, waiting periods, no taxpayer funding, parental notification and preventing baby girls from being killed simply because they are girls. Don’t let McAuliffe bring his extreme liberal Hollywood values home to Virginia.”

But the biggest point the GOP needs to learn from the Cuccinelli campaign is that his standard pro-forma GOP economic message of preventing future tax increases and being for jobs did not work. His campaign only took off once he began to tap into the present economic suffering of voters, brought on by Obamacare. As we wrote in our new report “Building a Winning GOP Coalition: The Lessons of 2012,” the biggest problem with scapegoating the social issues is that it keeps Republicans from focusing on our most urgent concern: building an economic message that positions us as the champions of the middle class, not the business class.

The conventional GOP consultant’s wisdom continues to fail the American people and lose elections. It’s time for the GOP to adopt a new strategy that will connect with voters on the economy and social issues, and help us win in 2014.

Francis P. Cannon is president of American Principles in Action.

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