CLEVELAND — Ken Cuccinelli II had just lost. Again. And won. Again.
After waging a week-long battle to change nitty-gritty Republican Party rules, the former Virginia attorney general gave it one more shot on the opening day of the Republican National Convention. Shouting, “Shame! Shame!” at the top of his lungs in the arena. Tossing his credentials to the floor in disgust. Donning them again at the urging of fellow Virginians. Then shouting some more.
The effort left Cuccinelli and the rabble he’d roused mired in bitter defeat. But there was a silver lining for a man who relishes a high-profile battle — even a losing one.
Hours after Trump and Republican Party forces crushed his late-afternoon insurrection, as the evening program was getting underway, reporters from national outlets continued to swarm Cuccinelli on the floor. The man whose mic had been cut off during the uprising now had a series of live ones thrust in his face. He got the rock-star treatment from Republican delegates such as Duane Cutlip of North Carolina, who took a selfie with the upstart.
“I think he cares deeply about the Republican Party and is doing what he thinks is best,” Cutlip said. “I appreciate people who bring their views to the table and support them vigorously.”
Not everyone was favorably impressed, from home-state critics to national Republican figures to the highly annoyed woman seated just off the floor, growing disgusted as reporter after reporter pressed Cuccinelli to rehash the rules fight as a former Navy SEAL and a tearful mother who lost her son in Benghazi, Libya, addressed conventioneers.
“Shhh,” she hissed. “These people should be interviewing the people on the stage.”
Cuccinelli led an attempted coup that fared about as well as the one just foiled in Turkey. Yet it’s unclear if he is any worse for the wear. A hero to the right for crusades he launched as attorney general against Obamacare, abortion and a university climate scientist, he further endeared himself to some fans. He further infuriated foes, who say the stunt embarrassed Trump and gave a nationwide audience an inflated image of GOP disunity.
Whatever its wisdom, Cuccinelli’s fight raised his profile at a time when his political future is uncertain.
Having narrowly lost the 2013 Virginia governor’s race to Terry McAuliffe (D), Cuccinelli had been the subject of fevered speculation about whether he will try again in 2017. In April, he said he would take a pass. But he remains the subject of will-he-or-won’t-he chatter — now centered on a potential run for the U.S. Senate in 2017. (The seat would come open if Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D) is picked for Hillary Clinton’s ticket, wins and becomes vice president.)
The Cleveland episode transforms Cuccinelli from “the guy who lost the governor’s race” to somebody getting a lot of buzz, said Mike DuHaime, a former Republican National Committee political director who was a campaign strategist for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s 2016 presidential bid. DuHaime saw the rules fight — which included a push to reward states that close their primaries to non-Republicans — as attention-getting but misguided.
“For Cuccinelli, he’s relevant, right? So there’s an element that’s good for him,” DuHaime said. “However, I do feel that many people think he’s wrong. . . . His gambit to try to reward people for having fewer people vote — I think many people think is backward. . . . I think most people think the party is better suited in the long run if more people have an opportunity to be a part of it.”
Illinois state Rep. John Cabello, vice chairman of his state’s delegation and co-chairman of Trump’s Illinois campaign, was incensed that Cuccinelli brought the rules fight to the floor after failing decisively in the rules committee the week before.
“I was on the rules committee. We fully debated this. They had their say,” he said. “Now, all of a sudden they want to try to do it again. When does it stop? We’re here. We know who the nominee is. It’s time to move forward and make him the actual nominee to beat crooked Hillary.”
Others doubt that the ruckus even registered with anyone but party insiders and the news media, with ordinary Americans more likely to be tuning in to hear Melania Trump’s speech or to see how well Chachi from “Happy Days” has aged.
“Four years ago, about 300 Ron Paul delegates left the convention. That was more of a disruption — an uprising, if you will — and you don’t even remember it,” said Ron Kaufman, a Massachusetts Republican committeeman and co-chairman of the rules committee.
Asked what he thought of Cuccinelli’s “last stand,” Kaufman said the episode was not consequential enough to meet that definition.
“To be honest, I don’t think he had a first stand,” he said. “So he couldn’t have a last stand.”
An even harsher assessment came from John Fredericks, a conservative Virginia radio host and vice chairman of the Trump campaign who worked feverishly on the floor to thwart Cuccinelli.
“Ken Cuccinelli has been running around in Cleveland for two weeks with absolutely nothing to show for it,” Fredericks said. “He’s been humiliated. He’s embarrassed at every turn. Now he’s trying to disrupt the convention and continue to disunite people over some silly, ridiculous rules petition that has no chance for passage. That doesn’t make any sense. That is just an egocentric move by somebody who has no more influence in Virginia and he doesn’t know what to do about it.”
(Cuccinelli had similarly sharp words for Fredericks during a bitter back-and-forth in the midst of the floor fight, saying to him, “You’re a libelous, defamatory owner of a microphone.”)
The Trump campaign’s effort to paint Cuccinelli as a has-been has a complication: The real estate mogul thought enough of Cuccinelli to personally woo him with a phone call in the spring. It came about the time that Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) — the presidential contender that Cuccinelli had been stumping for around the country — dropped out.
“We want you on the team,” Cuccinelli recalled Trump saying to him.
Whatever Trump and party insiders think of him, Cuccinelli is unlikely to care. From the time he was a state senator in Richmond, he was willing — even eager — to buck his party on issues such as tax increases or seemingly arcane points of law and procedure.
Cuccinelli’s reputation as a bomb-thrower can overshadow his sometimes nerdy fascination with detail. At times amid the rules fight, he sounded like the engineering student he once was.
“41E is the 40B of 2016,” he told reporters at one point, referring to various RNC rules. “It’s geeky stuff, right?”
He can be so far in the weeds that others sometimes have wondered what he might really be after. Many news organizations boiled his rules fight down, for instance, to a last-ditch effort to derail Trump’s nomination. He says that was not the case.
Until Cruz dropped out in the spring, Cuccinelli had led an effort to install him in a brokered convention. But his most recent push was not aimed at “unbinding” delegates committed to Trump. He sought rules changes that would have made the nomination process more favorable to a grass-roots favorite — something that could help Cruz if he chose to run again in 2020, but not this year.
Cuccinelli wanted states to return the party to closed contests, so that only Republicans could vote in presidential caucuses and primaries. That would favor more conservative candidates.
The effort echoed another minutiae-laden campaign led by Cuccinelli. As he sought the party’s 2013 gubernatorial nod, Cuccinelli engineered a takeover of GOP committees around the state to reverse a decision to select the nominee by statewide primary. He succeeded in changing it to a closed party convention, an all-day affair that draws only the most stalwart activists. His rival, then-Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, the establishment favorite, dropped out.
Cuccinelli’s supporters point to his nomination as proof that minutiae matters. His GOP critics wryly agree; if that fight had gone the other way, they say, there might be a Republican in Virginia’s Executive Mansion — the more electable (they say) governor Bolling.
Cuccinelli said this fight has been about standing up for sweeping principles, like reining in the power of party bosses. Making the GOP responsive to ordinary Republicans. Forcing the party to adhere to its own rules.
“This is the party of law and order. I was an attorney general,” Cuccinelli said ruefully on the floor. “They rolled through. They cheated.”
Cuccinelli’s critics say he simply craved the limelight. But former Virginia state senator John Watkins, a moderate Republican sometimes at odds with Cuccinelli, never thought his colleague was in it for the attention.
“I know Ken well enough to know he could [not] care less,” said Watkins, who represented a suburban Richmond swing district. “That doesn’t light his candle at all. But from the standpoint of everyone standing back looking at it, he becomes something or someone to be reckoned with.”