Cuccinelli’s hard-line conservatism seems headed for decisive rejection in Va.


Ken Cuccinelli II speaks to the media at Ashby Ponds Retirement Community in August in Ashburn, Va. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Robert McCartney
Columnist October 30, 2013

Here’s a statement by Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli II that I predict he will eventually disavow or at least regret: “We need people to know that Nov. 5 is a referendum in Virginia on Obamacare.”

Cuccinelli (R), who abhors the president’s health-care law, made the remark Monday at a Fairfax event in hopes of energizing party activists in the campaign’s final week.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

But opinion polls are pointing to a comfortable victory, perhaps a landslide, for Democrat Terry McAuliffe. If that happens, do you think Cuccinelli will describe the outcome as an endorsement of the health plan he’s denounced as a reckless, unconstitutional violation of American liberty?

Neither do I.

But the Republican candidate is entirely correct in portraying the election as an important referendum. He just has the topic wrong.

The vote will be a plebiscite on Cuccinelli’s own, well-established brand of hard-line conservatism: a blend of tea party hostility to government and religious right opposition to abortion rights and gay equality.

Perhaps Cuccinelli will stage a miracle comeback before Tuesday’s election. But if the polls are correct, then the result ought to smash the cherished myth of the Republican right that it can win elections in Virginia if it just stops offering milquetoast moderates such as Mitt Romney.

This year, thanks to a party convention dominated by grass-roots activists, the Republicans nominated Cuccinelli as part of the most conservative statewide ticket in memory.

Virginia voters have noticed. They don’t like what they see.

Consider a striking bit of data from The Washington Post’s latest poll. Nearly 9 percent of likely Virginia voters share the following three characteristics: They voted for Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell four years ago. They plan to vote for McAuliffe this time. They view Cuccinelli as “too conservative.”

If those voters were supporting Cuccinelli, the poll said, he would be leading McAuliffe by five points. Instead, the Republican is trailing by 12.

The Post’s poll and others also show clearly that McAuliffe’s supporters are hardly in love with him. Twice as many are voting against Cuccinelli as for McAuliffe, who has a shady business record and zero experience in elected office.

Cuccinelli has alienated past GOP voters partly through various actions in his job as attorney general, such as harassing a University of Virginia scientist with whom he disagreed about global warming.

“I voted for him for AG, but some of the things that he’s done are absolutely appalling to me,” said Pat Sheldon, a retired Navy lieutenant commander who lives in Prince William County. “His going after the Virginia professor. . . . That to me is a personal vendetta, just because he doesn’t know about climate change.”

The recent federal government shutdown also has hurt Cuccinelli, by arousing ire against his tea party allies.

“I don’t like the fact that he associated with people who are willing to shut the government down, which especially hurts the economy in this area,” said Jeff Hever, 36, of Leesburg, who works in the retail automobile business.

Cuccinelli publicly called the shutdown “an unacceptable outcome for Virginia,” which is particularly dependent on federal employment and contracts.

But Cuccinelli made a joint appearance during the shutdown with its principal architect, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). Cuccinelli also said afterward that he wasn’t sure he would have voted for the compromise that ended the shutdown.

If Cuccinelli loses, then count on the Republican right to make three main excuses about why the outcome wasn’t “really” a rejection of its agenda. They’ll say they were massively outspent. That the government shutdown was unlucky timing. That they suffered collateral damage from the scandal over a businessman’s gifts to McDonnell.

Only one of the three rationalizations is valid. It’s true that McDonnell turned out to be a drag on the GOP ticket, instead of an advantage as expected.

By contrast, Cuccinelli has mainly himself to blame for his disadvantage in fundraising. Many Virginia businessmen who typically write big checks to the GOP supported McAuliffe, or sat on the sidelines, because they didn’t like Cuccinelli’s positions.

Finally, Cuccinelli can hardly complain about the federal government shutdown, given that it was inspired by precisely the kind of white-hot resistance to the president’s health-care overhaul that he personified.

Tuesday’s election will be a fair popular judgment on Cuccinelli’s political principles. It seems likely that Virginia voters are going to give a conclusive thumbs-down.

I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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