RICHMOND — Ask delegates at the state Republican convention here why they admire Ken Cuccinelli, their newly official candidate for governor, and the most frequent answer is that he’s “a warrior.”
I’ve got no argument with that. But before Virginia voters cast their ballots in November, they have a right to know: a warrior for what?
If Cuccinelli is elected, it’s reasonable to expect that he’d use the powerful governor’s office to fight for the same causes that have made him a hero to the 8,000 conservative activists here and to the tea party nationwide. That would mean more high-profile battles against Obamacare, abortion, environmental protection and gay rights.
But despite Cuccinelli’s frequent insistence that he’s a special politician who sticks to his principles and plays straight with the public, the early signs are that his campaign is trying to distract voters from the very positions that made him famous.
In his acceptance speech Saturday at the Richmond Coliseum, Cuccinelli made only brief, passing references to his antiabortion position and his unsuccessful fight as attorney general against health-care reform.
Instead, he went on and on about what he called his top priority of creating jobs and growing the economy.
His first two television ads took a similar approach. The first, featuring his wife, Teiro, emphasized that Cuccinelli has fought to reduce sexual assaults and help the mentally ill and that he once worked the night shift at an Arlington County homeless shelter. The second ad was all about reducing taxes and regulation to make Virginia “an engine of job growth.”
Those are hardly the issues that excite the conventioneers. Delegate Mary Powers of Arlington praised Cuccinelli because he’s “such a warrior” to protect the unborn. Delegate Elaine Corbo from Rockingham County likes him because he “comes out of the gate swinging” on such issues as health care and morality.
It’s clear what Cuccinelli’s campaign strategy is aiming to do: He and his advisers want to copy the model for Republican success in Virginia used by Gov. Bob McDonnell four years ago.
Like Cuccinelli, McDonnell had a record as an outspoken conservative advocate on social issues. But McDonnell deliberately played down those in the campaign. He stressed that he’d be a pragmatist, especially on the economy and transportation. His slogan, “Bob’s for jobs,” carried him to a landslide victory.
Republicans here praised Cuccinelli for pursuing the same strategy in his race against Terry McAuliffe, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
“Ken gets that at this moment in time, the economy and job creation come first. That’s where he’s going to focus like a laser. I think that’s going to ameliorate some concerns that people have about him,” said House Del. Jimmie Massie III (Henrico).
The problem facing undecided voters is that although Cuccinelli is campaigning like McDonnell, he wouldn’t necessarily govern the same way.
To a large extent, McDonnell followed the vision he laid out in his campaign. He publicly warned fellow Republicans in the General Assembly against pushing divisive social issues. Although he was criticized for signing a bill requiring women to have ultrasounds before having abortions, he also forced the GOP to amend the bill to allow women to avoid the most invasive, transvaginal kind of ultrasound.
It's not at all certain that Cuccinelli would lean toward the middle like that. He has likened the fight against abortion to the movement to abolish slavery.
McDonnell also compromised on one of his signature issues — opposition to higher taxes — when it counted most. He agreed to raise gasoline taxes as part of this year’s historic package to pay for roads and transit.
For all of Cuccinelli’s claims to stand for principle and plain speaking, he has sent mixed signals about the transportation bill. He strongly opposed it before it passed, saying Virginians couldn’t afford such a massive tax increase. Now he’s backed off, saying he wouldn’t try to get it repealed.
The shift could point to a newfound streak of realism, which I would welcome. But it could also just mask simple opportunism. A call for repealing the transportation tax would split the GOP and alienate business-oriented conservatives and moderates in Northern Virginia.
McDonnell’s decision to raise taxes wasn’t popular at all with the delegates here. But many praised the governor, albeit grudgingly, for putting the state’s interests above the party’s.
“In one way, he kind of weighed what was the bigger benefit,” said Howard Hahn, an Augusta County delegate. Hahn disliked the tax hike but conceded that “we needed to do something” about transportation.
Cuccinelli needs to tell voters squarely whether he’d be ready to choose pragmatism over ideology in the same way.
For previous Robert McCartney columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.