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. 
Getty Images
Beth Reinhard
See more stories about...
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.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4535) }}

What We're Following See More »
Romney to Skip Convention
15 minutes ago

An aide to Mitt Romney confirmed to the Washington Post that the 2102 GOP nominee will not attend the Republican convention this year. He joins the two living Republican presidents, George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush, as well as 2008 nominee John McCain in skipping the event. Even among living Republican nominees, that leaves only Bob Dole who could conceivably show up. Dole did say in January that he'd prefer Trump to Ted Cruz, but his age (92) could keep him from attending.

FDA to Ban All Tobacco Sales to Minors
2 hours ago

In a long-awaiting new rule, the Food and Drug Administration will ban sale of all tobacco products—including e-cigarettes—to those under 18. The rule takes effect in 90 days. It's part of a larger package of regulations that "gives FDA authority to regulate—but not to ban—all tobacco products, from e-cigarettes to cigars and hookahs." Meanwhile, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed a bill on Wednesday that would bump the legal age to buy all tobacco products from 18 to 21.

Sen. Sasse Calls for a Third Candidate
3 hours ago

Sen. Ben Sasse, the most prominent elected official to declare that he's #NeverTrump, wrote an open letter on Facebook to the "majority of Americans who wonder why the nation that put a man on the moon can’t find a healthy leader who can take us forward together." Calling to mind recent conversations at a Fremont, Neb., Walmart, the senator pitted the presumptive general election battle between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as such a "terrible choice" that there would be an appetite for another candidate to emerge. In a parenthetical aside to reporters, Sasse ruled himself out. "Such a leader should be able to campaign 24/7 for the next six months," he wrote. "Therefore he/she likely can’t be an engaged parent with little kids." Meanwhile, his colleague Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) admitted in a private recording obtained by Politico that Trump hurts his reelection chances.

Former Sen. Bob Bennett Dies at 82
7 hours ago

Former Utah Republican Sen. Bob Bennett died of pancreatic cancer on Wednesday after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. Bennett was defeated in a primary in 2010 by Tea Party–backed Mike Lee.

Judge Approves Deposition of Clinton Aides
7 hours ago

"Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, approved a joint proposal presented by Judicial Watch and the State Department to take the depositions of officials" involved in the setup and use of Hillary Clinton's private email server, "including Cheryl D. Mills, Clinton's former chief of staff, Huma Abedin, a senior adviser to Clinton, and Bryan Pagliano, a State Department employee who serviced and maintained the server." He said Clinton could be deposed later on, though that may not be necessary.