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GOLDMAN: Will Richmond stadium referendum help Cuccinelli, Jackson?

Paul Goldman is a local lawyer who helped run Doug Wilder's historic campaign for governor of Virginia.

Paul Goldman is a local lawyer who helped run Doug Wilder's historic campaign for governor of Virginia.

by Paul Goldman

RICHMOND, Va. – Did City Council President Charles Samuels intend to help Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli and GOP Lt. Gov. candidate E.W. Jackson?

This is a question one of Mr. Samuels’ fellow council members might ask when the nine-person body considers his proposal to put on the November ballot a non-binding, advisory referendum asking voters whether to build a downtown baseball stadium.

Those of us who have run successful statewide campaigns are always looking for opportunities to get an extra edge.

Political truth: The Samuels’ push for a non-binding advisory referendum could prove a big help to Cuccinelli and Jackson. The operative word is “could.” There is no way to know for sure. But he might be helping the Republicans. Here’s why.

In terms of the governor’s race between Ken Cuccinelli and Terry McAuliffe, a successful campaign strategist divides the Commonwealth into 4 basic media markets:

  • Southwest/Western Virginia
  • Tidewater
  • Central Virginia
  • Northern Virginia

While modern elections involve expensive advertising campaigns based on a homogenized appeal to a statewide electorate, the winning strategy often requires configuring your themes to take advantage of issues in a particular market area.

For example, the transportation issue is of little importance in the Southwest/Western parts of the Commonwealth, but can be pivotal in Northern Virginia, even Tidewater.

Moreover, the particular localized issue of key gubernatorial campaign importance need not be as all-consuming – in terms of dollars and regional impact – as transportation. It can be a relatively small, indeed a “niche” matter, small in overall dollars, but big in overall political impact

Why? Take the Central Virginia media market.

In large measure, it is based on the three major commercial TV stations located in Richmond, the Richmond Times Dispatch, other news outlets heavily influenced by the “goings on” in the Capitol City. Thus political issues of interest mostly to Richmond can become high profile to voters in the entire market as they see it on TV all the time, read about it, hear it discussed on the radio.

Before long, it takes on symbolic importance, a statement about government in their region. In that context it might become very important to the outcome of the Governor’s race in two respects.

Did Mr. Samuels consider these factors when pushing for his referendum?

For many voters, the issue of where to put the baseball stadium will be of more importance than who gets to be the next Governor. But based on recent history, voter turnout in 2013 will be depressingly low. For some reason, statewide issues don’t excite Virginians as before.

So like it or not, the baseball stadium issue will have a lot more political “juice” with many voters than tax, transportation, education, or other statewide policies. They will pay more attention. It will bring voters to the polls who would not otherwise have cast a ballot.

Richmond is an overwhelmingly Democratic City. Cuccinelli and Jackson have little appeal for city voters. Accordingly, the baseball referendum offers both of them the opportunity to be seen in a favorable light by huge numbers of normally anti-voters on the high profile baseball stadium issue. There would seem to be little political reason for Cuccinelli and Jackson to support a downtown baseball stadium [or moving it from the Boulevard] as a matter of political strategy in terms of the City of Richmond.

Whatever the outcome of the referendum vote, the following seems certain, if by some chance there would be a majority of voters backing a downtown stadium, it would be the narrowest of such a majority. In a normal Richmond election, Cuccinelli and Jackson would get around 25 percent of the vote.

Thus the pure political math.

Their taking a strong stance against a downtown baseball stadium, or for keeping the field on the Boulevard, seems a winning political play no matter what in terms of pure Richmond voting politics. Double or more voters will agree with them on a big issue than otherwise would be the case. It offers the possibility of letting them campaign far differently in this media market.

But there is an even better, for them, second factor.

The ability of Cuccinelli/Jackson to use the stadium issue to bolster their images as fiscal conservatives running against big spending, crony capital Democrats who spend money trying to help special interests at the expense of education and other public needs. Right now, both Cuccinelli and Jackson have been trying – and failing badly – to create that image for themselves and paint the Democrats in a negative light. IT ISN’T WORKING.

Both seem utterly incapable of making voters believe they are pro-education, pro-working family, pro-common sense fiscal conservatives. They are mired in any number of controversies that are taking precedent. In my view, they are increasingly stuck in this quagmire with no way out.

ENTER: The Samuels’ baseball referendum.

The local television stations that will be carrying the coverage of this referendum OVER AND OVER throughout the key Central Virginia media market. In a governor’s race, the Southwest/Western media market is the smallest of the 4: but it is solidly Republican and therefore while small, it often delivers big GOP margins. The NOVA market is the biggest – much bigger than the Southwest/Western but a Republican can be somewhat more competitive.

Thus the governor’s race often comes down to Tidewater and Central Virginia, each providing roughly 25 percent of the votes expected to be cast this November.

All other things being equal, political logic would say that a Republican winning the governor’s mansion would have to win the Central Virginia market as opposed to the Tidewater market: and vice-versa for a Democrat.

Or put another way, all other things being equal, the key to Cuccinelli and Jackson winning would likely be a solid showing in Central Virginia.

ACCORDINGLY: To the extent the baseball referendum allows them to polish their image, their message, it is a potentially big help. Given the ineptness of their campaigns to date, the baseball referendum might actually be a huge gift from Mr. Samuels.

That is to say: A full-on Cuccinelli endorsement of baseball on the Boulevard, along side a calculated campaign pitch against a Democratic Richmond City Administration wasting public money on a downtown baseball stadium to help a few cronies at the expense of education and city services, would likely get rave reviews from voters inside the City and across the Central Virginia media market.

Indeed, a Republican gubernatorial candidate rallying against Mayor Jones’ Democratic Administration – using the stadium issue to attack him for every educational and other ailment – seems…well….too good to pass up.

It sure beats anything Cuccinelli has said to date. It might be a totally made-up attack, but the stadium issue offers the potential to make it seem credible.

As for Jackson, his campaign is so bad off, ANYTHING has to be better.

More importantly, of all the GOP candidates, he seems the most eager to attack the Democratic leadership running cities like Richmond. Jackson already blames them for the failures of the schools and the like. Thus, the baseball stadium would seemingly be – to him – proof of what he has been saying for all these years.

Bottom line: Given the above, surely it is now clear why one of Mr. Samuels’ colleagues would ask whether the City Council President is trying to help the GOP ticket.

To be sure, it would be a “snide” comment, trying to bait the City Council President, or at least put him on the defensive. As someone who studies elections, I would have to say this: Surely, Samuels gave the matter some consideration, that is to say he is too smart a politician not to have at least considered the effect of his referendum on the politics of 2013.

But he was likely thinking about 2016 more than 2013, the date of the next Mayor’s election when Mayor Jones will be term-limited from seeking another term. The referendum is Samuels’ attempt to get a “leg up” on this competition by trying to win a city-wide election.

In that regard, you can’t fault him or at least I don’t as an analyst. This is what politicians do.

But in terms of 2013, if I were a Democratic member of City Council, I might challenge Samuels on his decision to do something that can’t help McAuliffe, but can only help Cuccinelli. Try as Mr. Samuels might, he would have no winning comeback from that perspective.

After all, this is a Democratic city, and Mr. Samuels is clearly running for Mayor. Since Mr. Samuels was not a leader in the fight to get an Elected Mayor, he has no history of leading any referendum type of effort. So why do it now, in 2013, one might ask? It might be a trick question. But politics is what it is.

There are good and sufficient local reasons of course to have a referendum in 2013. But key Democratic activists are not likely to be so forgiving especially if Cuccinelli happens to win, or Jackson uses the referendum to embarrass citywide Democrats for choosing a baseball stadium over school children.

Moreover there are many powerful Democrats, including Mayor Jones and his posse, who want a downtown baseball stadium. There are many reasons why political insiders want this project to go forward.

This could put a lot of pressure on McAuliffe to stay neutral in a referendum fight, leaving the field to Cuccinelli and Jackson. Or it could force McAuliffe to mute his opposition, leaving the advantage to Cuccinelli and Jackson. These are factors to be analyzed.

Then there is the issue of cost. How much money, if any, will the state contribute to the baseball stadium either directly or indirectly?

Cuccinelli is likely to say ZERO. But McAuliffe’s approach may be different especially if the project is tied to development on the Boulevard [assuming the stadium is moved to Shockoe]. Using taxpayer funds for stadiums is usually the norm. But voters don’t like it.

As purely a 2013 issue, the Samuels’ non-binding advisory referendum opens him up to serious questioning from Democrats. That’s reality.

A binding City Charter amendment referendum – it would require the City Council to go along unlike Samuels’ non-binding advisory proposal – is far better politically for the City Council President. It is more defensible since it may be only way to decide once and for all the future of Shockoe Bottom. Voters are likely to appreciate the difference. But Samuels isn’t going this way.

My take — if I were Samuels, I would not rush to judgment here, but rather take some more time to consider the matter further. Personally, I am a big fan of giving people more power over their lives. A public referendum is a good thing as a general rule. But upon reflection, delaying the referendum might make sense for Samuels.

Paul Goldman is in no way affiliated with WTVR. His comments are his own, and do not reflect the views of WTVR or any related entity. Neither WTVR nor any of its employees or agents participated in any way with the preparation of Mr. Goldman’s comments.

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