Ken Cuccinelli, You’re Doing It Wrong

Tea-party candidates who want to win statewide will have to learn how to find issues that mainstream voters care about.

MCLEAN, VA - SEPTEMBER 25: Attorney General for Virginia and Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli (R) and former DNC Chair and Democratic candidate Terry McAuliff (L) shake hands after a debate moderated by NBC4 Chuck Todd on September 25, 2013 in McLean, Virginia. Voters go to the polls November 5 to decide which candidate will replace incumbent governor Bob McDonnell, who has reached his term limits. 
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Beth Reinhard
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Beth Reinhard
Oct. 31, 2013, 5 p.m.

In the homestretch of the race to be­come Vir­gin­ia’s next gov­ernor, Re­pub­lic­an Ken Cuc­cinelli shared a stage with Sen. Rand Paul of Ken­tucky while Demo­crat Terry McAul­iffe ral­lied with former Pres­id­ent Clin­ton. The con­trast between the two head­liners tells you a lot about why Cuc­cinelli is the un­der­dog in Tues­day’s elec­tion. The state at­tor­ney gen­er­al could look only to a tea-party hero to help mo­bil­ize turnout. And that was the high point. In re­cent weeks, he’s dredged up C-list con­ser­vat­ive celebrit­ies with even less reach, such as ra­dio talk-show host Mark Lev­in and the 19 Kids and Count­ing Dug­gar fam­ily. Mean­while, McAul­iffe has been palling around with a widely ad­ored two-term pres­id­ent.

The pair­ings re­veal more than the simple ad­vant­age of be­ing a former Demo­crat­ic Party na­tion­al chair­man who’s tight with a former oc­cu­pant of the White House. It’s a red blink­ing light for the tea-party move­ment. Gran­ted, tea-party politi­cians can thrive in Re­pub­lic­an-heavy states or con­gres­sion­al dis­tricts, but by their very nature they face enorm­ous chal­lenges in ex­pand­ing and di­ver­si­fy­ing battle­grounds such as Vir­gin­ia. Any can­did­ate who swears al­le­gi­ance to con­ser­vat­ive or­tho­doxy auto­mat­ic­ally for­sakes con­stitu­en­cies needed to build win­ning elect­or­al co­ali­tions on big, broad canvases.

“It’s a big prob­lem, and I don’t think the Re­pub­lic­an Party has figured out the an­swer,” said Jerry Rich, a Re­pub­lic­an Party act­iv­ist from Fair­fax County, Va., sport­ing a Cuc­cinelli stick­er on his blue blazer at the Paul rally. “The main thing for any politi­cian is to win.”

No won­der that Cuc­cinelli, look­ing out at the mostly white, older, and en­thu­si­ast­ic crowd packed in­to a hotel ball­room, mused, “I think we should just have the elec­tion in here.”

In a state Pres­id­ent Obama car­ried twice, Cuc­cinelli’s ri­gid policy po­s­i­tions en­dear him to the tea party but cut him off from key swaths of voters. The at­tor­ney gen­er­al as­sailed a $600 mil­lion trans­port­a­tion-fund­ing pack­age to re­lieve the state’s eco­nomy-chok­ing con­ges­tion, be­cause it raises taxes — heresy in tea-party world. But traffic is a top is­sue in com­muter-heavy North­ern Vir­gin­ia, where statewide races are largely won and lost. The bi­par­tis­an ini­ti­at­ive was also widely ap­plauded by the busi­ness com­munity, a key GOP con­stitu­ency that blew off Cuc­cinelli and, in some cases, ran in­to McAul­iffe’s arms.

Cuc­cinelli’s op­pos­i­tion to im­mig­ra­tion-re­form ef­forts on Cap­it­ol Hill dis­tanced him from oth­er key vot­ing blocs. Even Paul, in an over­ture to the fast-grow­ing His­pan­ic and Asi­an-Amer­ic­an com­munit­ies, came out in fa­vor of leg­al­iz­ing un­doc­u­mented work­ers, al­though he voted against the Sen­ate bill be­cause he said it wouldn’t se­cure the bor­der.

Cuc­cinelli did try to broaden his ap­peal by in­sist­ing his top pri­or­ity is the eco­nomy and prom­ising to cut taxes. He aired a mov­ing TV ad about lead­ing the charge to free a wrong­fully con­victed Afric­an-Amer­ic­an man im­prisoned for 27 years. He touted his ad­vocacy for bet­ter men­tal-health care and ef­forts to com­bat sex traf­fick­ing.

None of these is­sues broke through, in part be­cause of McAul­iffe’s mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar ava­lanche of ads pil­lory­ing Cuc­cinelli as an an­ti­abor­tion zealot who wants to con­fis­cate wo­men’s birth-con­trol pills. “This whole race is framed around him hat­ing wo­men,” said Jam­ie Radtke, founder of the Vir­gin­ia Tea Party Pat­ri­ots. “Gov­ernor [Bob] Mc­Don­nell had just as strong of a pro-life re­cord when he ran in 2009, but he wasn’t out­spent like this.”

Cuc­cinelli’s ul­tracon­ser­vat­ive re­cord lim­ited his fun­drais­ing reach, as did a tox­ic scan­dal in­volving gifts and money to him and the gov­ernor from a loc­al busi­ness­man. Money is un­likely to be a prob­lem for gov­ernors elec­ted with tea-party sup­port and seek­ing second terms, such as Rick Scott in Flor­ida, Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania, and Scott Walk­er in Wis­con­sin, but it could be a ma­jor chal­lenge for tea-party can­did­ates run­ning for gov­ernor in Ari­zona, Idaho, and Neb­raska, or run­ning for Con­gress.

Cuc­cinelli fi­nally seems to have found his groove by re­fo­cus­ing on the new health care law, a prom­ising path­way for the tea party in 2014. Al­though he was the first at­tor­ney gen­er­al to chal­lenge Obama­care, Cuc­cinelli didn’t run an ad con­demning the law un­til late Septem­ber, dur­ing the chaot­ic run-up to the gov­ern­ment shut­down. A bet­ter-timed at­tack hit Tues­day, as con­cerns es­cal­ated about the web­site’s mal­func­tions and the law’s im­pact on ex­ist­ing in­sur­ance plans. “We need people to know that Novem­ber 5 is a ref­er­en­dum in Vir­gin­ia on Obama­care,” Cuc­cinelli said.

With at least one poll show­ing McAul­iffe’s lead nar­row­ing, some Cuc­cinelli sup­port­ers are won­der­ing if he spent too much time jab­bing at his op­pon­ent’s ob­vi­ous blem­ishes. “You have to stay on a con­sist­ent mes­sage, and per­haps Obama­care was the mes­sage all along,” said tea-party act­iv­ist Russ Moulton, who lives in north-cent­ral Vir­gin­ia. As Pres­id­ent Obama’s ap­prov­al sinks to new lows in part be­cause of his hand­ling of the health care law, the Af­ford­able Care Act is look­ing like the money is­sue for the tea party in 2014 since it con­nects the move­ment to the main­stream.

Brent Bozell is mak­ing no apo­lo­gies. The chair­man of Fo­rAmer­ica, a con­ser­vat­ive grass­roots group, said, “The mod­er­ate branch of the Re­pub­lic­an Party turned its back on Cuc­cinelli, and that hurt him big time. When this is all over, win or lose, there’s got to be a con­ver­sa­tion about that.” But in the dia­logue Bozell en­vi­sions, the tea party isn’t com­prom­ising its prin­ciples and grov­el­ing for sup­port. Like many in the move­ment, he points to the fail­ure of main­stream Re­pub­lic­ans, such as former pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ees Mitt Rom­ney and John Mc­Cain. If any­thing, Bozell said, Cuc­cinelli should have been more ag­gress­ive in de­fend­ing con­ser­vat­ism.

“Run­ning to­ward the middle is the old paradigm,” he said. “Polit­ics is so­lid­i­fy­ing and mo­bil­iz­ing your base — and the hell with the middle.”

McAul­iffe is try­ing to have it all. Tak­ing his cue from Obama, he’s tar­get­ing black, gay, and young voters, and tout­ing gun con­trol and abor­tion rights. But he’s waffled on coal reg­u­la­tions and off­shore oil drilling to avoid rank­ling con­ser­vat­ives and the busi­ness com­munity, and one of his clos­ing ads touts “sens­ible busi­ness-friendly policies.” That’s put­ting to the test Bozell’s the­ory that the middle doesn’t mat­ter any­more.

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