Ken Cuccinelli II often brags that he has won elections in the battleground precincts around his home in Northern Virginia. But you wouldn’t know it in the closing days of the Virginia governor’s race.
Rather than aiming for the moderates who have transformed the political landscape in recent elections, Cuccinelli is increasingly focused on shoring up his conservative base at a time when all recent polls show him lagging behind Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
Cuccinelli, the Republican attorney general, has dialed back his ad spending in liberal-leaning Northern Virginia in comparison with other regions of the state. And after months of seeming to avoid talking about some of his more conservative positions, he has returned to fiery rhetoric in recent appearances.
He has also sought help from a steady stream of conservative Republican luminaries, including Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) and his father, Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) — choices that may hold particular appeal to voters considering Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis, who is largely responsible for Cuccinelli’s struggle to lock up Republican support.
Cuccinelli also rallied with former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in Richmond last weekend and staged a conference call on the Affordable Care Act with Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) on Tuesday.
“I believe that President Obama ought to fire Kathleen Sebelius,” Cuccinelli said Tuesday, repeating a popular line among conservatives about the secretary of health and human services, who has overseen the rollout of the federal health-care law. “Congress should legally pass a one-year delay of the individual mandate.”
The strategy suggests that Cuccinelli is vulnerable among the state’s most ardent conservatives, who were widely expected to turn out in droves for a politician who has made a name for himself as a tea party hero. In the campaign’s final stretch, it may also suggest that the Republican has given up on moderate voters who have already decided how they’ll vote — or not to vote at all.
“I think Ken Cuccinelli is a polarizing figure,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. “Someone who’s going to be upset that Paul Ryan is going to help him probably made up their mind about Cuccinelli two years ago.”
But “for some Republicans who are a little disenchanted with the campaign,” Gonzales said, these surrogates “can help generate some enthusiasm that wasn’t there otherwise.”
Cuccinelli has consistently trailed in the polls — two statewide surveys released Wednesday showed McAuliffe leading by seven percentage points among likely voters — in part because the attorney general has failed to close the deal with what should be his most natural supporters. Some on the right have gravitated toward Sarvis, while others have indicated that they may stay away from their precincts on Nov. 5.
Cuccinelli will have a high-profile opportunity to reshape the race Thursday evening, when he and McAuliffe will appear together in Blacksburg in the final televised debate of the campaign. The debate, co-sponsored by Virginia Tech and Roanoke’s WDBJ-TV, will be televised across southwest Virginia, a crucial region for Cuccinelli to shore up support among conservatives.
Cuccinelli senior adviser Chris LaCivita said the focus on conservatives should not be seen as a sign of a campaign in trouble. It is standard practice, he said, to focus on the base’s turnout in the homestretch.
“Campaigns always work in the final weeks to ensure their base and core voters show up,” LaCivita said. “It doesn’t matter where you are in public surveys. . . . If you don’t ensure your base shows up, you don’t have a chance at winning.”
McAuliffe has spent some time tending to his own base. Former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton hosted a packed rally for the former Democratic National Committee chairman in Falls Church on Saturday, and former president Bill Clinton will accompany McAuliffe on a multi-day swing, beginning Sunday, that will include several stops in college towns and other heavily Democratic areas.
But the comparison may end there: Despite a long history as a polarizing figure, Bill Clinton appears to have gained at least some popularity across party lines: A 2012 CBS/New York Times/Quinnipiac poll found that 67 percent of Virginia’s likely voters — and 67 percent of independents — had a favorable opinion of Bill Clinton.
A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday revealed why Cuccinelli may need to shore up his right flank. The survey shows Cuccinelli attracting the support of 81 percent of likely GOP voters, while McAuliffe is backed by 92 percent of Democrats. Sarvis earned the support 11 percent of Republicans and 2 percent of Democrats, according to the poll.
Numbers aside, some Republicans see a glimmer of hope in predictions of exceedingly low turnout on Election Day — in part because the race has been so negative. Maximizing the base vote will be more important than usual, meaning that appeals to the broad middle are less useful if those people decide to skip voting.
That thinking is evident on the airwaves, where Cuccinelli has shifted his focus away from advertising in moderate Northern Virginia. According to data from the ad-tracking firm Kantar Media, in the two weeks ending Sunday, Cuccinelli devoted 46 percent of his total ad spending to the pricey and populous Washington market. That’s down from 63 percent the previous month.
Cuccinelli’s latest ad says McAuliffe plans to sharply increase spending and will raise taxes to do it (McAuliffe has said he will not raise taxes). The spot appears aimed at fiscal conservatives, although that can include independents and swing voters.
Conversely, Cuccinelli ads with more explicit crossover appeal are no longer on the air. One of them featured a wrongly convicted man he helped free from prison; another showcased a Democratic member of the Richmond School Board.
Similarly, at a rally Monday with out-of-state Republican attorneys general, Cuccinelli said he wasn’t sure whether he would have voted for the deal that reopened the government. In the past, Cuccinelli wavered on the topic of the federal government shutdown, which polls have shown to be broadly unpopular across Virginia — but much less so among Republicans.