Cuccinelli: In your heart, you know he's to the right of right

Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney discusses Republican State Sen. Ken Cuccinelli, who is ahead in the polls for Virginia attorney general.
Thursday, October 22, 2009

Attention, Virginia voters: If the polls are correct and nothing big changes in the next 12 days, you're going to elect a state attorney general who's so ardently conservative he makes gubernatorial candidate Robert F. McDonnell sound like a mealy-mouthed moderate.

State Sen. Ken Cuccinelli II of Fairfax County, the Republican candidate to be the state's top lawyer, portrays the environmental movement as a socialist ploy and said in 2003 that homosexuality is just plain wrong.

If elected, he promises to use the state attorney general's office as a platform to advance his causes, such as reducing Virginia's divorce rate and battling with Washington over laws or regulations that he thinks violate states' rights. His idea of a compelling issue was championing a measure last year to make it easier to deny unemployment benefits to immigrant workers fired for not speaking English.

Cuccinelli, who's running against Del. Stephen C. Shannon (D-Fairfax), is ahead in the polls in what opinion surveys suggest will be a Republican sweep Nov. 3 of the races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. He's gotten this far without stirring up much opposition partly because the governor's race draws most of the attention and partly because the Democrats have failed to shine a spotlight on Cuccinelli's controversial views.

As a result, although Virginia has turned more moderate this decade, there's a good chance it will put a militant conservative in a high-profile office in Richmond while many voters are looking the other way.

To his credit, Cuccinelli, 41, is ahead also because he's an adept, hardworking politician. A business lawyer who has been in the Senate for seven years, he comes across as agreeable rather than angry, even while he takes evident relish in staking out combative positions.

"You'll have an attorney general who's ready to fight with Washington," he promised a July 4 meeting of the anti-tax Tea Party movement.

Cuccinelli built a political base in southwestern Fairfax by actively cultivating support from social conservatives, including religious groups and home-schoolers. Such backing helped him squeak through to reelection in 2007 even though his district has been turning Democratic.

That approach differs from McDonnell's. Although his political roots also lie in the social conservative movement, he has been running for governor primarily on bread-and-butter issues such as jobs and transportation. McDonnell has said his social views have evolved since his 1989 master's thesis, but Cuccinelli has espoused hard-line conservative stances more recently.

If both are elected as the polls suggest, then it seems likely that Cuccinelli will press McDonnell to embrace positions that he might support personally but go beyond the issues on which he campaigned.

Cuccinelli says he wants to use the attorney general's position in new ways to promote long-term changes. Antipollution regulations could be a target, as Cuccinelli told College of William and Mary students Sept. 20, "The environmental movement has been used more than any other movement in the last 25 years as a shell for people who have a different agenda, and that is to destroy and get rid of capitalism." (His campaign declined to comment for this article, saying, "We don't respond to opinion-based journalism." )

Cuccinelli is also campaigning on less provocative proposals to fight gangs, Internet crimes and sex offenses against children. However, a recent fundraising letter highlighted his positions against abortion and same-sex marriage. He told the Republican Party convention that nominated him in May that he has been "the most aggressive pro-life leader in the Virginia Senate in some time."

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