Ken Cuccinelli’s Problems Are a Symptom of the GOP’s Woes

Republicans should admit that the Virginia conservative’s problems reflect the intraparty struggle that’s haunted the GOP during Obama’s presidency.

RICHMOND, VA - SEPTEMBER 05: Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican nominee for governor, answers questions from members of the press after addressing former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder's Public Policy class at Virginia Commonwealth University September 5, 2013 in Richmond, Virginia. Cuccinelli delivered remarks during the beginning of the class and then took questions from students and members of the press. 
National Journal
Add to Briefcase
Josh Kraushaar
Oct. 30, 2013, 1 a.m.

No, Ken Cuc­cinelli’s ex­pec­ted de­feat next week won’t have any more bear­ing on the 2014 midterms than Chris Christie’s an­ti­cip­ated land­slide vic­tory in solidly-Demo­crat­ic New Jer­sey. But the di­vide that split the GOP asun­der in Vir­gin­ia is a power­ful symp­tom of the prob­lems that are hurt­ing the party across the coun­try.

Re­pub­lic­ans are fa­cing chal­lenges win­ning over swing, sub­urb­an voters who were once a bul­wark of the party’s co­ali­tion. Cuc­cinelli has spent little time cam­paign­ing in vote-rich North­ern Vir­gin­ia, with his so­cially con­ser­vat­ive mes­sage fail­ing to res­on­ate with more-mod­er­ate voters.

Throughout his cam­paign, Cuc­cinelli has been ca­ter­ing to the party’s base, de­clin­ing to cri­ti­cize GOP tac­tics over the gov­ern­ment shut­down and ap­pear­ing with tea-party lead­ers Ted Cruz and Rand Paul in the cam­paign’s fi­nal month. His ap­pear­ance with Paul on Monday was at Liberty Uni­versity, where the sen­at­or ad­voc­ated a pro-life mes­sage to an evan­gel­ic­al audi­ence.

“Re­pub­lic­ans need to ask what’s wrong with our busi­ness mod­el here,” said a frus­trated Tom Dav­is, former Re­pub­lic­an House mem­ber from North­ern Vir­gin­ia and a Cuc­cinelli sup­port­er. “This should have been a slam dunk. Vir­gin­ia al­most al­ways votes against the pres­id­ent’s party…. All we needed was a mam­mal up there.”

If Cuc­cinelli fails to en­gin­eer an un­likely comeback, it should sig­nal that run­ning an out­spoken so­cial con­ser­vat­ive in a battle­ground state is a los­ing for­mula. But there are few signs that the mes­sage is get­ting through. If any­thing, the party’s civil war — played out in Vir­gin­ia between lieu­ten­ant gov­ernor Bill Bolling and Cuc­cinelli — is just be­gin­ning to heat up.

Con­sider: Sev­en of the 12 Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors up for reelec­tion in 2014 are fa­cing cred­ible primary threats from the right. Few of those are ex­pec­ted to win, but most will pose more than a nuis­ance.

Most prom­in­ently, Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell is cam­paign­ing ag­gress­ively against tea-party-aligned busi­ness­man Matt Bev­in; Mc­Con­nell’s cam­paign is do­ing everything in its power to di­min­ish the chal­lenger’s cred­ib­il­ity, and the stand­ing of out­side tea-party groups. In Mis­sis­sippi, con­ser­vat­ive groups like the Club for Growth and the Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund are ral­ly­ing be­hind state Sen. Chris McDaniel, deemed the Jim De­Mint of the state’s Le­gis­lature, against vet­er­an Sen. Thad Co­chran. In Ten­ness­ee, Sen. Lamar Al­ex­an­der spent more than $1 mil­lion in the last fun­drais­ing quarter in an­ti­cip­a­tion of a primary chal­lenger. (He avoided the worst out­come, fa­cing only a long-shot can­did­acy from a state rep­res­ent­at­ive.)

Mean­while, con­ser­vat­ive can­did­ates are con­tinu­ing to chal­lenge es­tab­lish­ment fa­vor­ites in many oth­er Sen­ate races. In a crowded Sen­ate primary in Geor­gia, most of the can­did­ates are all try­ing to out-con­ser­vat­ive each oth­er. And in Louisi­ana, where a Novem­ber primary has can­did­ates from all parties com­pet­ing on the same bal­lot, the Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund en­dorsed the re­tired Air Force col­on­el chal­len­ging GOP Rep. Bill Cas­sidy. That means, while the two Re­pub­lic­ans spend their time at­tack­ing each oth­er, Sen. Mary Landrieu could avoid a gen­er­al elec­tion by win­ning 50 per­cent of primary voters.

Plus, with the grass­roots’ en­ergy fo­cused on oust­ing their own, out­side groups are pay­ing less at­ten­tion to the crop of vul­ner­able Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors. The GOP cam­paign com­mit­tees’ fun­drais­ing is down, and Amer­ic­an Cross­roads is fa­cing chal­lenges rep­lic­at­ing its fun­drais­ing suc­cess of elec­tions past. Just like Cuc­cinelli has faced a huge fin­an­cial dis­ad­vant­age against deep-pock­eted Demo­crat Terry McAul­iffe, Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates could find them­selves out­spent in pivotal races, thanks to the in­tra­party di­vide.

The Vir­gin­ia gov­ernor’s race also has high­lighted how elec­tion rules de­signed to be­ne­fit con­ser­vat­ives have played an un­her­al­ded role in push­ing the party right­ward, cost­ing them at the gen­er­al-elec­tion bal­lot box. Most not­able: The party’s prac­tice, in sev­er­al states, of hold­ing con­ven­tions in­stead of primar­ies to choose nom­in­ees, leav­ing the typ­ic­ally un­rep­res­ent­at­ive cross-sec­tion of single-is­sue act­iv­ists to pick the Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ate.

In Vir­gin­ia, Cuc­cinelli’s al­lies by­passed the primary pro­cess to blunt in­tra­party op­pos­i­tion, a move that’s con­trib­uted to his prob­lems in uni­fy­ing the party. Iron­ic­ally, the out­spoken con­ser­vat­ive is be­latedly try­ing to rally the base, something that would have been much easi­er had he en­gaged the broad­er GOP elect­or­ate in a primary cam­paign.

Re­pub­lic­ans are fa­cing a sim­il­ar prob­lem in Iowa in the cam­paign for the state’s very-win­nable open-seat Sen­ate race. A crowded cast of can­did­ates is vy­ing for the GOP nom­in­a­tion, but party rules guar­an­tee a con­ven­tion if no one hits 35 per­cent of the vote. That pos­sib­il­ity is grow­ing, with GOP lead­ers do­ing noth­ing to avert the out­come. A con­ven­tion would start the pro­cess over, rais­ing the like­li­hood of a weak can­did­ate emer­ging.

The big­ger long-term fear, ac­cord­ing to Re­pub­lic­an strategists, is if the party di­vi­sions worsen, the tea-party forces could emerge as a third party. Already Mc­Con­nell’s cam­paign has ad­op­ted a scorched-earth strategy, not just against his primary op­pon­ent, but against the very tea-party-ori­ented groups work­ing to elect more con­ser­vat­ive chal­lengers to in­cum­bents. The Mc­Con­nell camp’s goal is to ex­ploit the groups’ ideo­lo­gic­al in­con­sist­en­cies, but those tac­tics are already in­flam­ing in­tra­party ten­sions.

“The right could spring out very quickly and be­come their own en­tity — and then we’re gone,” said Dav­is. “These folks feel very em­powered.”


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.