A June survey by the Republican firm Harper Polling found that 86 percent of Virginians believed it was important to fix the immigration system this year, and 69 percent supported a path to citizenship for immigrants who paid fees and taxes and learned English over an extended period.
But as Rubio discovered, moving to the middle risks a backlash from the far right: His favorability rating fell 15 points from February to June as he championed immigration reform. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), two other tea party favorites with an eye on 2016 White House bids, voted against the Senate plan, and House Republicans have refused to vote on it.
Cuccinelli’s spokeswoman said campaign events are being planned with Cruz and Paul.
Former congressman Tom Davis, a Republican from Northern Virginia, said Cuccinelli has made it clear that he will not risk offending his base — on immigration and also on gay rights and contraception — in hopes of knitting together a broader coalition that would include more moderates.
“It’s hard to win a statewide election with that,” Davis said. “I told him he needs to be more inclusive. People moving into the state are not in agreement with the party they’re constructing.”
Other Republican strategists argued that Cuccinelli is not trying to play both sides of the issue. Rather, they said, he has de-emphasized his immigration positions in a campaign that has focused primarily on jobs and the economy. Cuccinelli and McAuliffe have also spent considerable time deflecting questions about personal business relationships.
Former GOP state representative Jeff Frederick of Prince William County suggested that Cuccinelli erased the immigration portion of his Web site because it’s “not what people are thinking about when he goes to meet with voters.” The site includes sections on education, energy, jobs, veterans, moms and students.
Hispanics are still a small bloc in Virginia: They made up 5 percent of the state’s electorate last fall, with Obama winning 64 percent of their votes.
Ray Allen, a GOP political consultant in Virginia, said that “neither campaign has been articulating an agenda around immigration.” While Virginia once was a leading battleground over illegal immigration — from the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, in which several of the hijackers had ties to Virginia and Virginia driver’s licenses, to the fight over day laborers in Prince William County — the issue is now primarily a federal one, Allen said.
“Is this a question that’s relevant to the governor’s race? No,” Allen said. “I could give you 10 issues that McAuliffe’s taken positions on [as a Democratic Party leader] that he’s not bringing up this election.”
But immigration could gain more prominence in the race. The candidates are scheduled to appear at an Oct. 6 forum in Annandale sponsored by Virginia’s Hispanic, Asian and black chambers of commerce, and the issue will be among the featured topics.
“We want to know where he stands,” Hispanic Chamber President Michel Zajur said of Cuccinelli. “It’s something that hurt Mitt Romney when he was running. . . . It very well may have cost him the election.”