Republicans Should Stop Worrying About Ken Cuccinelli

The Virginia conservative is a weak, damaged candidate whose expected loss in next week’s governor’s race offers few lessons for a 2014-focused GOP.

FAIRFAX, VA - OCTOBER 28: Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican candidate for Governor of Virginia, greets supporters after speaking at a 'Get out the Vote' rally October 28, 2013 in Fairfax, Virginia. Cuccinelli is running against Democratic candidate Terry McAullife in a very close race.  
National Journal
Sarah Mimms
Oct. 30, 2013, 1 a.m.

Demo­crats are eager to por­tray Ken Cuc­cinelli’s ex­pec­ted loss on Tues­day as an omin­ous sign for the fu­ture of the Re­pub­lic­an Party. In­deed, if the GOP’s state at­tor­ney gen­er­al loses, it will mark the first time Vir­gin­ia voters backed a gov­ernor from the same party as the pres­id­ent in 40 years.

But Cuc­cinelli was such a uniquely weak can­did­ate that it’s ir­rel­ev­ant to ex­tra­pol­ate his prob­lems to the long-term pro­spects of the Re­pub­lic­an Party. Just look at New Jer­sey, where Gov. Chris Christie is ex­pec­ted to win by an even big­ger mar­gin than Demo­crat Terry McAul­iffe in Vir­gin­ia — and in a state that’s even more Demo­crat­ic than the Old Domin­ion.

In­deed, there were a host of only-in-Vir­gin­ia factors that doomed Cuc­cinelli’s cam­paign from the start. He was badly out­spent and un­able to match McAul­iffe’s money on tele­vi­sion; the state’s GOP gov­ernor was en­meshed in scan­dal and un­able to help his cam­paign; and, most im­port­ant, the tim­ing of the gov­ern­ment shut­down crippled any mo­mentum Cuc­cinelli could have bulit up.

McAul­iffe has vastly out­spent Cuc­cinelli on tele­vi­sion ad­vert­ising throughout the cam­paign, drop­ping more than $14 mil­lion since May while Cuc­cinelli has spent about $8.5 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to The Wash­ing­ton Post. The over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of those ads have fo­cused on the Re­pub­lic­an’s so­cial agenda, ac­cus­ing him of everything from want­ing to pre­vent wo­men from di­vor­cing to plan­ning to take birth con­trol pills away from Vir­gin­ia’s wo­men.

Un­til re­cently, Cuc­cinelli largely glossed over his re­cord on so­cial is­sues, ar­guing that he will do little as gov­ernor to en­act an ideo­lo­gic­al agenda. McAul­iffe has pushed those so­cial is­sues in­to the cam­paign, while Cuc­cinelli hasn’t had the re­sources to re­spond.

“I think at the end of the day they’re go­ing to get out­spent 2-to-1,” a Re­pub­lic­an op­er­at­ive said of Cuc­cinelli.

Demo­crats are un­likely to rep­lic­ate McAul­iffe’s massive spend­ing ad­vant­age in oth­er con­tests next year. Out­side Re­pub­lic­an groups are ex­pec­ted to play an act­ive role in clos­ing any fin­an­cial gap, while a tar­geted Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an like Mitch Mc­Con­nell is sit­ting on a mul­ti­mil­lion dol­lar war chest.

Mean­while, the tea party-led shut­down in Oc­to­ber was a unique crisis that couldn’t have come at a worse time for Cuc­cinelli, who was try­ing to mod­er­ate his con­ser­vat­ive im­age. He was en­ter­ing the fi­nal month of the race down in the polls — but not yet out.

But more than one-quarter of the Vir­gin­ia elect­or­ate works for the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, and ac­cord­ing to this week’s Wash­ing­ton Post poll, the back­lash helped McAul­iffe ex­pand his lead. The poll showed McAul­iffe with a 12-point lead over­all; 69 per­cent of voters said the shut­down was an “im­port­ant” factor in their vote. The 55 per­cent who rated it as “very im­port­ant” said they back McAul­iffe 2-to1.

“I don’t know that the out­come would be any dif­fer­ent without the gov­ern­ment shut­down, but it was a close race without it,” said one na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an op­er­at­ive who has tracked the race.

The shut­down fight also over­shad­owed the dif­fi­culties Demo­crats have had in im­ple­ment­ing Pres­id­ent Obama’s health care law, which Cuc­cinelli fought against ag­gress­ively as state at­tor­ney gen­er­al.

An­oth­er de­vel­op­ment that’s unique to Vir­gin­ia is the scan­dal that en­com­passed out­go­ing Gov. Bob Mc­Don­nell, once viewed as the Re­pub­lic­an’s biggest as­set on the cam­paign trail. But after Mc­Don­nell be­came en­meshed in a scan­dal over ac­cept­ing costly gifts from a cam­paign donor — whom Cuc­cinelli found him­self con­nec­ted to, as well — the GOP can­did­ate lost any abil­ity to tap in­to the gov­ernor’s (fad­ing) pop­ular­ity.

Even as McAul­iffe’s busi­ness deal­ings have been closely scru­tin­ized by the press, The Wash­ing­ton Post poll found that more Vir­gini­ans view the former DNC chair­man as more hon­est and trust­worthy than Cuc­cinelli — by a 9-point mar­gin.

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