I have expressed doubt whether the GOP candidate for governor in Virginia, current state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, has the broad appeal and discipline needed to run a winning campaign in a purple state. Last week he made one move that should hearten Virginia Republicans. He announced he was selecting Dave Rexrode, former executive director of the state GOP, as his campaign manager. In the announcement Rexrode put out an inclusive, economic message : “I am looking forward to making sure we keep growing our economy, providing more opportunities for all Virginians, and solving the problems facing our Commonwealth by electing Ken Cuccinelli our next Governor.”
Rexrode’s emphasis on bread-and-butter issues is not surprising. Rexrode was Gov. Bob McDonnell’s deputy campaign manager in 2009, a race McDonnell won by nearly 20 points, focusing like a laser on economic issues. A close adviser to McDonnell (who is now backing Cuccinelli) tells me Rexrode is a “political all-star down here” in Richmond and “knows Virginia like the back of his hand.”
That is promising for Cuccinelli, who still may face the threat of an independent run from Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who exited the race when Cuccinelli’ s supporters arranged for a nominating convention instead of a primary.
Rexrode would be wise to concentrate on two items. First, Cuccinelli badly needs an experienced and credible press operation. Cuccinelli is going to face an onslaught of attacks on his views on gay rights and abortion, among other things. He must have someone who can frame Cuccinelli’s record, respond to inquiries and deflect attacks. The longer he waits to do this, the higher the risk that Cuccinelli will be defined by his opposition. And second, and more important, Cuccinelli has not presented anything resembling an agenda. It is critical that he do so, and present enough meat on the bones both to give him something to talk about and to drive the debate onto ground he is more comfortable defending (the budget, regulation, taxes).
A recent incident highlights the sort of opportunities, and dangers, he faces. The Post reported, “The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency exceeded its authority in trying to regulate storm water as it would a pollutant, a federal judge in Alexandria ruled Thursday. The decision, a victory for Fairfax County and Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R), came six months after the county and state filed a lawsuit against the EPA over its attempt to regulate the amount of water flowing through Fairfax’s Accotink Creek watershed as a means of controlling sediment buildup.”
But another report noted that it was “his first clear-cut victory in the conservative’s much-publicized skirmishes with the federal government. . . . Unlike his other cases against the federal health care overhaul or the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases, Mr. Cuccinelli had a local partner in this instance. He acknowledged that the outcomes have been mixed but didn’t indicate he was about to pull any punches against Washington.”
This was an opportunity for Cuccinelli to explain why he brought those suits, how those suits fit into his overall vision for the state and what other regulatory measures he would take. Instead he sounded defensive. (“We certainly fought back, and we’re sort of 1-1-1.”) Why is it worthwhile, and how has Virginia benefited from the totality of his fights against the federal government? Cuccinelli has a lot of blanks to fill in.
Politics abhors a vacuum, and without a substantive campaign on issues Virginia voters care about, he will be labeled as an extreme ideologue and defeated. Rexrode has his work cut out for him.