Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has won statewide office and run successful races for state senate in Northern Virginia. But he has experienced nothing like the onslaught of scrutiny that will accompany a gubernatorial race in a year when national media have no other hotly contentious race to follow. (One presumes that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will obliterate any opposition.) This is especially true given Cuccinelli's record as a high-profile social conservative. To put it mildly, Democrats and their liberal media allies will be gunning for him.
He already has a small but telling problem. Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling dropped out of the race, effectively handing the nomination to Cuccinelli. However, as the Richmond Times Dispatch reported, Bolling would not endorse Cuccinelli and left the door open to an independent run. He remarked, "I think there are Republicans who have concerns about Mr. Cuccinelli's candidacy and Democrats who have concerns about Mr. McAuliffe's candidacy, and there are probably a lot of independent voters who are looking and saying, Is this the best that we can do?' So we'll just have to see how that campaign unfolds over the next few months." Bolling may not be the kind of scintillating figure who could mount an independent run, but there may be other opportunists who see the opening should Cuccinelli not start strong. And so far he's been remarkably low-key.
He could put some of the concerns of moderate Republicans to rest if he does a few simple things. He should, however, not dawdle. Should the Democrats see an opening they will pounce, defining Cuccinelli as a radical, angry, impractical ideologue before Cuccinelli can introduce himself to the wider electorate, which is only dimly aware of who he is.
First, he will need an expert, battle-tested communications team. Right now his long-term political director, Noah Wall, is holding down the fort, but Cuccinelli will need an aggressive and highly adept communications team to fend off the onslaught of attacks, work constructively with mainstream media and present Cuccinelli in the best possible light. He will not win the race by stiff-arming the media or trying to fend them off with vague generalities. In short, he needs a communications team that is the polar opposite of the Mitt Romney's communications team -- a really good one.
Next, he should promptly figure out his agenda. Is he going to run a Gov. Bob McDonnell-style race focused on economic issues that appeal to suburban voters? Or will he duke it out on hot-button social issues, hoping to counteract the Democrats' advantage in Northern Virginia with big turnout elsewhere? McDonnell ran against President Obama's policies but left aside the personal attacks. Can Cuccinelli do the same? Cuccinelli would do well to figure out precisely what he wants to accomplish as governor, set out a clear agenda and then stick to it.
In that regard he will need to figure out how to deal with his staunch social conservatism and record on, for example, trying to prevent Virginia universities from prohibiting discrimination against gays and his support for controversial ultrasound legislation. Unlike McDonnell, whose most controversial writings occurred decades ago, Cuccinelli's record is fresh and his attachment to the conservative base is so strong he cannot very well run from his well-established identity. However, pretending this is not a problem with female voters and suburbanites would be a grave error, and he will need to decide whether to minimize or maximize those issues in his race.
One step that would help in that regard would be to come up with several meaty issues on which to focus. Ideally, that would include transportation, which has been the b te noir of Virginians for years. The more specific the plan, the better for Cuccinelli. McDonnell, you will recall, was able to put hot-button issues aside because he had an array of substantive issues which he could speak on at length.
Cuccinelli, who was the driving force behind ultimately unsuccessful litigation to stop Obamacare would do well to continue to make his case against federal control of healthcare, explain his opposition to setting up the exchanges and then sketch out his own conservative alternative. What would Virginians get with Obamacare health-care exchanges and, if he can obtain a waiver or Obamacare is delayed, what would he offer instead? As attorney general he could simply recite the arguments against Obamacare; as a gubernatorial candidate he will need to do more.
Promising to stand up to Obama's Environmental Protection Agency, which seems determined to put energy producers out of business, is another winning issue. Presumably his opponent will defend the president he helped reelect and should therefore be challenged to defend those policies, which adversely affect Virginia.
And finally, it is vital for Cuccinelli to define McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chair and partisan Democrat, before McAuliffe does. He might take a page from the Obama playbook and start looking into McAuliffe's business dealings and also frame McAuliffe as the un-Virginian partisan who has no record of working across the aisle or engaging in pragmatic governance. Keeping the focus on his vulnerable candidate, as Obama showed, is the best defense of them all.
The race is winnable by Cuccinelli, but he should recall that the key to McDonnell's victory was a highly focused candidate and an expertly run campaign operation. Unless he can match that, he'll be an at-risk conservative in an increasingly moderate state.