The GOP’s Conservative Cuccinelli Problem

The Virginia attorney general is calling Republican headliners for backup as he slips in the polls. But his far-right positions make for an awkward alliance with the national party.

Virginia gubenatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli speaks to seniors at Ashby Ponds retirement community in Ashburn, VA.
National Journal
Beth Reinhard
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Beth Reinhard
Aug. 28, 2013, 2 a.m.

ASH­BURN, Va. — Down in the polls and out-raised by his op­pon­ent, Vir­gin­ia Re­pub­lic­an gubernat­ori­al can­did­ate Ken Cuc­cinelli is in­creas­ingly re­ly­ing on the na­tion­al party to come to his res­cue.

In the past two months, the Re­pub­lic­an Gov­ernors As­so­ci­ation has spent $3.6 mil­lion on tele­vi­sion ads in the state, on top of the $2 mil­lion doled out to the cam­paign earli­er this year. Three of the GOP’s biggest stars, Sen. Marco Ru­bio of Flor­ida, Sen. Rand Paul of Ken­tucky, and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, are all ex­pec­ted to cam­paign for Cuc­cinelli this fall, with Ru­bio sched­uled to come to Vir­gin­ia next month.

It’s a mu­tu­ally be­ne­fi­cial but awk­ward re­la­tion­ship between the nom­in­ee and the na­tion­al polit­ic­al es­tab­lish­ment. Re­pub­lic­ans—in­clud­ing the three po­ten­tial 2016 con­tenders—want to keep their grip on the highest of­fice in a ma­jor battle­ground state. Not to men­tion that the GOP is gun­ning to re­pu­di­ate Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee Terry McAul­iffe, a former na­tion­al party chair­man closely tied to Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton, the front-run­ner for the Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion.

“If you care about con­ser­vat­ive val­ues and get­ting our coun­try back on track, this race should mat­ter to YOU, even if you don’t live in Vir­gin­ia,” said Louisi­ana Gov. Bobby Jin­dal, chair­man of the RGA and an­oth­er pos­sible 2016 can­did­ate, in a re­cent fun­drais­ing ap­peal.

But the na­tion­al party’s much-bal­ly­hooed goal of win­ning over more minor­it­ies and wo­men on the road to the White House doesn’t al­ways line up with Cuc­cinelli’s fiercely con­ser­vat­ive track re­cord. The mis­match was evid­ent Tues­day, when the at­tor­ney gen­er­al was asked about Ru­bio’s bill to al­low mil­lions of il­leg­al im­mig­rants to earn cit­izen­ship. Some Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers say the bill will pave cru­cial in­roads in­to the fast-grow­ing His­pan­ic com­munity.

“I don’t sup­port am­nesty, if that’s what you mean, but I cer­tainly sup­port a fo­cus on the rule of law,” Cuc­cinelli said in a vis­it to the Ashby Ponds re­tire­ment com­munity. He ad­ded he hadn’t read the bill: “I’m run­ning for gov­ernor. That is a state of­fice.”

Cuc­cinelli’s ex­plan­a­tion doesn’t mesh with his long­time prac­tice of wad­ing in­to na­tion­al de­bates over im­mig­ra­tion, health care, and cli­mate change. For ex­ample, as a state sen­at­or run­ning for reelec­tion in 2007, Cuc­cinelli sent out a fun­drais­ing ap­peal de­scrib­ing his fer­vent op­pos­i­tion to a sim­il­ar im­mig­ra­tion re­form bill touted by then-Pres­id­ent Bush. “My Pres­id­ent is wrong,” reads the e-mail. “I no longer con­sider him the head of my Re­pub­lic­an Party.” Cuc­cinelli also warned: “If Wash­ing­ton com­pounds its his­tor­ic ir­re­spons­ib­il­ity on the is­sue of il­leg­al im­mig­ra­tion by passing the pro­posed bill, there will be a bi-par­tis­an/non-par­tis­an polit­ic­al ex­plo­sion the likes of which we have not seen in some time.”

Ru­bio’s of­fice did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment about Cuc­cinelli’s po­s­i­tion on the cur­rent bill. Pro­ponents say it will cre­ate jobs, as many as 14,000 in each con­gres­sion­al dis­trict, ac­cord­ing to the Re­pub­lic­an-lean­ing Amer­ic­an Ac­tion Net­work.

“Ken Cuc­cinelli con­tin­ues to demon­strate that his ex­treme ideo­logy comes be­fore bi­par­tis­an com­prom­ise,” said McAul­iffe spokes­man Bren­nan Bil­berry. “Cuc­cinelli is again fo­cused on de­rail­ing a prag­mat­ic bi­par­tis­an com­prom­ise that is crit­ic­al for Vir­gin­ia’s eco­nomy be­cause of his ideo­lo­gic­al op­pos­i­tion.” 

Cuc­cinelli has also op­posed a new state law award­ing $600 mil­lion for roads and oth­er trans­port­a­tion im­prove­ments be­cause it will raise taxes.

The at­tor­ney gen­er­al’s con­ser­vativ­ism also came up Tues­day in a ques­tion from one of the res­id­ents of the re­tire­ment com­munity about his po­s­i­tion on birth con­trol.

“I don’t think gov­ern­ment should be do­ing any­thing about birth con­trol or birth-con­trol devices,” Cuc­cinelli said.

“So the ru­mors that you would sup­port birth-con­trol re­stric­tion are false?” asked res­id­ent Johnanna Bon­nely­cke.

“I wouldn’t call them ru­mors. I’d call them lies,” Cuc­cinelli re­spon­ded.

His re­marks drew a swift re­sponse from McAul­iffe’s al­lies in the Demo­crat­ic Party and the abor­tion-rights move­ment, who poin­ted to his 2007 “per­son­hood” bill that de­clared that life be­gins at fer­til­iz­a­tion and could have out­lawed some birth con­trol.

The gov­ernor’s race has been char­ac­ter­ized by bru­tal at­tacks by both sides and left Cuc­cinelli lag­ging 6 points be­hind McAul­iffe in the latest Quin­nipi­ac poll. McAul­iffe has weathered a string of neg­at­ive pub­li­city about his busi­ness re­cord, in­clud­ing a fed­er­al probe in­to a bid for for­eign in­vestors by his former elec­tric-car com­pany, GreenTech. Cuc­cinelli has also en­dured bad press, par­tic­u­larly about his ties to a busi­ness­man whose re­la­tion­ship with fel­low Re­pub­lic­an Gov. Bob Mc­Don­nell is un­der fed­er­al in­vest­ig­a­tion. Cuc­cinelli has tried to sep­ar­ate him­self from the mat­ter and was cleared of eth­ics vi­ol­a­tions, but he’s been hit hard by at­tack ads link­ing him to the scan­dal.

“One of the prob­lems with be­ing out­spent is that it’s aw­fully hard to push back,” said Cuc­cinelli, who was trail­ing McAul­iffe by $5 mil­lion in dona­tions at the end of June.

An­oth­er res­id­ent of the seni­or cen­ter, Bill Vi­tale, told Cuc­cinelli not to worry about the tele­vi­sion spots. “Shortly after they’re on, people can’t re­mem­ber what they’re about any­way,” he said, adding that “I think you’ll be a fine gov­ernor.”

Cuc­cinelli didn’t hes­it­ate to take sev­er­al shots at McAul­iffe dur­ing his ap­pear­ance Tues­day in a key swing county in North­ern Vir­gin­ia. He de­scribed the race as between “frugal Ken versus uni­on Terry,” re­fer­ring to the hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars the Demo­crat has ac­cep­ted from labor. Cuc­cinelli also noted that he’s held elec­ted of­fice in Vir­gin­ia for a dec­ade while McAul­iffe has nev­er served in pub­lic of­fice.

“There’s an as­sump­tion that they’ve already been con­trib­ut­ing to their com­munity that they’re ask­ing to lead, and in my race, that as­sump­tion is not true,” he said. “I’m the only can­did­ate that’s been do­ing that in Vir­gin­ia.”

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