Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli II (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

Last night I received a recorded phone message from a group called the Tea Party Patriot Fund. In the guise of a poll, the ad for Republican gubernatorial nominee Ken Cuccinelli ll asked if I supported the giant tax hike  by the “current governor” (alluding to the sales tax hike to pay for transportation) and whether I favored Medicaid expansion. The ad is noteworthy in several respects.

It was, like nearly all of Cuccinelli’s campaign (and this was a third-party ad, which cannot be coordinated with the candidate), entirely negative. The message is that Democrat Terry McAuliffe will raise taxes and expand Medicaid. Unfortunately for Cuccinelli, he’s managed to push down McAuliffe’s numbers but not raise his own, leaving McAuliffe the least-horrible choice for many voters.

The ad also left out Libertarian Robert Sarvis when it asked for whom you intend to vote. While polls suggest Sarvis is pulling equally or even more from McAuliffe than Cuccinelli, the pro-Cuccinelli folks (maybe preparing their excuses) believe Sarvis is killing Cuccinelli’s chances. In fact, a stronger candidate would have kept those voters in the GOP fold. It is no coincidence that Sarvis is running on a social libertarian message, offering a striking alternative to Cuccinelli’s staunch anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, anti-drug legalization message.

In addition, this group doesn’t think that the transportation bill is popular. In fact, polling says it is, and, moreover, Cuccinelli hasn’t run on repealing it. (Had he done so, perhaps those fiscal conservatives wouldn’t be considering Sarvis). It’s part of the confusion about Cuccinelli — will he try to make the law work or seek to scuttle it?

And finally, telephone ad arguments against McAuliffe are weak. The House of Delegates is overwhelmingly Republican and the state Senate is evenly divided, neither of which is likely to change much in the November election. What are the chances the legislature will vote to raise taxes or to expand Medicaid? Not large. In fact, other than the bully pulpit, the Virginia governor is not a very powerful office. The divided legislature is giving independent and Republican voters some security that McAuliffe (whose is a pro-business Democrat to begin with) won’t turn Virginia into an anti-business, anti-growth state.

There are some better arguments to be made for Cuccinelli. He could be running a populist campaign on the little people vs. Terry’s cronies who will get sweet deals. (Instead, Cuccinelli’s campaign has essentially used McAuliffe’s business deals to discredit him personally). He could be running a positive campaign on what he is going to do and why positive action (not just the status quo) is needed. And he could be running on a single popular issue such as energy development.

One thing that would not have helped — although hard-line conservatives are brushing up this excuse — would have been to run harder on the social issues. He is already losing big in areas (Northern Virginia) and with groups (e.g. younger voters, women) who think he’s too extreme on social issues. Unlike Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), who didn’t run on social issues and was able to win Northern Virginia and the women’s vote, Cuccinelli has been unable to escape being tagged as an extremist on these issues. On TV in Northern Virginia, you get one anti-Cuccinelli ad after another, most emphasizing his stance on contraception, abortion, etc.

Sometimes the voters do stumble upon a truthful, general proposition, even if they don’t have all the particulars exactly right. Cuccinelli is a very aggressive, confrontational politician who deeply believes in his positions on social issues, which are generally to the right of most voters in the most-populous areas of the state. That’s a fundamental problem with his candidacy. Some say he’s “old Virginia” (akin to rock-ribbed conservatives like former Gov. George Allen, who held office 20 years ago) in a “new Virginia” (more diverse, tolerant, moderate, more residents not born in-state). If he does lose (which seems likely), that will be as good an explanation as any.