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Electing a cat as governor

Gary Caruso | Friday, November 8, 2013

On its face it sounds silly, but the Commonwealth of Virginia could have easily elected a cat as their next governor this week. No, this is not an insult to the winning Democratic candidate and now Governor-elect Terry McAuliffe. It speaks to today’s political climate fueled by zany kamikaze Tea Party antics in Congress and the public’s disgust with the restrictive, turn-back-the-clock ideology of Republican candidates. Repeatedly now for three election cycles, Democrats needed only to nominate a cat to best their Republican opponents in such contests as the Indiana, Nevada and Delaware Senate races as well as in this year’s Virginia’s gubernatorial race. It speaks loudly about today’s political mood amongst the voting public, a mood that once also cycled even onto the Notre Dame campus elections, thereby installing a cat as student body vice president.
Electing a cat to public office in the real world is a rarity at best, but it happened within Notre Dame’s Catholic Disneyland bubble in the spring of 1972 when a joke candidate with his cat ran for student body president during an atmosphere when he was the right candidate running at the right time against the right opponents. This writer vividly recalls how “King Kirsten” replete with a Burger King crown and toga partnered with his kitten (sporting a fake Notre Dame student ID) to best several candidates – including me – in a year when students were disillusioned about how self-serving the previous student body president was when the administration proposed banning beer kegs from campus. After the lame duck student body president sold out our “keg cause” for a personal letter of recommendation to the Yale Law School from then University President Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, student electors had little reason to consider serious candidates.
This year’s political climate is not unlike those days in the early 1970s on campus. Voters – at least a majority nationwide since 2010 – are weary of regressive, restrictive positions and proposals from Republican candidates. Virginia Democrat McAuliffe has been portrayed as acting slick as a cat for his campaign fundraising prowess and insider status within his party. Others questioned his credentials since he has never held elective office, thus equating his perceived lack of governing to that of a cat. Yet, in our atmosphere today of choosing a candidate merely as a reaction to and repudiation of ineptitude, McAuliffe won because he was the right candidate running at the right time against the right opponent.
Just how Terry McAuliffe, a previously nonelected candidate for governor – even if that candidate had been substituted for an inexperienced kitten – this week beat his GOP opponent Ken Cuccinelli, a former state representative and current statewide elected attorney general, is no secret. Disgusted women and weary minorities voted against the fear that Cuccinelli was another of a long line of kamikaze Tea Party nutcases.  It was one thing for Cuccinelli to espouse a pro-life stand, but it was outrageously frightening for Cuccinelli to have written and supported bans on all forms of abortion along with mandating reports detailing instances of women who experienced miscarriages. Many wondered what type of mind wanted to track miscarriage statistics or hold those unfortunate women accountable to legal questioning.
Not surprisingly to some, for the first time in decades, this year’s turnout of 2.2 million voters in Virginia increased about two percentage points, up to more than 37 percent from almost 36 percent in 2009 when 1976 Notre Dame graduate and GOP nominee Bob McDonnell topped state senator Creigh Deeds. About 196,000 more people voted this week than did four years ago, with much of that increase coming from the more progressive and pro-Obama Northern Virginia region. This year’s increased turnout stopped a 20-year decline for governors’ races, at its peak having once nearly topped 67 percent of eligible voters who cast ballots in 1989 when African-American Democrat Douglas Wilder beat GOP nominee Marshall Coleman in one of the closest races in state history. Yet, this week’s paltry voter turnout remains nearly half of the past three presidential election rates when Virginia averaged 66 percent.
 Exit polling revealed that many Republicans and Independents voiced opposition to Cuccinelli’s past extreme stances while expressing fears that he would follow McDonnell with such missteps and far-out policies such as requiring women who are considering an abortion to submit to a big-government, invasive ultrasound mandates. Savvy analysts also attribute a stronger voter turnout uptick to President Obama’s continued use of his campaign apparatus and outreach efforts. George Mason University government and politics professor, Michael McDonald, studies voting behavior and noted that early voting ballots cast in Virginia increased especially in areas that had previously voted for Obama.
The Cuccinelli defeat fell victim to timing and message, factors that rule the roost in political campaigns whether a candidate runs campus-wide or on a statewide level. Kirsten’s kitten spread that sentiment throughout both of Kirsten’s student body presidency terms of junior and senior years at Notre Dame. McAuliffe can navigate off of Cuccinelli’s misfortune with the same ease. Notre Dame survived two terms of kitten representation. Virginia will manage a term of McAuliffe’s cat-like demeanor.

Gary J. Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, serves in the Department of Homeland Security and was a legislative and public affairs director at the U.S. House of Representatives and in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. Contact him at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not         necessarily those of The Observer.