In Virginia, a Swing State Turns Against the Tea Party

The Republican divisions laid bare by the government shutdown are playing out in the gubernatorial race, and the result appears to be a Democratic rout.
Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

STERLING, Virginia Surely the greatest irony of the recent federal government shutdown was this: Some furloughed federal workers, finding themselves with time on their hands and presumably angry at what Congress had done to their livelihoods, used their unscheduled leisure to cast their ballots early in the state’s gubernatorial race.

“Election officials are reporting an uptick in in-person-absentee voting since the government shutdown hit,” the Arlington Sun Gazette reported on October 4, and “furloughed federal workers” were thought to be the cause. Once in the ballot booth, did they take the occasion to vent their annoyance with national Republicans on the GOP’s candidate for governor, state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli? As a parable of Tea Party brinkmanship in Washington hurting the party nationally, it could hardly have been more apt.

Journalists always seize upon Virginia’s odd-year gubernatorial elections as bellwethers of the national mood, a leading indicator of potential voter backlash against a new or newly reelected president. The state’s governors serve only one term, and for the last 36 years, Virginia voters have never once chosen a governor of the party of the sitting president.

Sometimes the “bellwether” gloss is a cheap journalistic device. But this year, the trope fits absurdly well. Seemingly every aspect of the race exemplifies America’s national political currents: An ideologically driven Republican candidate tied to the Tea Party emerges from a primary process controlled by the right-wing base. Democrats look to solidify control in an electoral off-year of a swing state where demographic change has helped them compete in presidential politics. A deeply flawed Democratic candidate bases his campaign on appeals to women, moderates, and disaffected Republicans; the GOP hard-liner focuses on turning out his base.

And if the polls are right, the result is a Democratic blowout.

Those polls have been remarkably consistent for months now, putting Democrat Terry McAuliffe ahead by an average of nearly 10 percentage points. Despite McAuliffe’s many questionable qualities, voters seem to prefer him to Cuccinelli and his vision of ideologically pure conservatism. As Republican factions vie for control of the party nationally and the Ted Cruz wing calls the shots in Congress, it’s a result that has profound implications in elections across the country in the years ahead.

On Monday, Cuccinelli stood before a cluster of microphones in a cavernous campaign field office, located behind a mattress store in a strip mall in this D.C. exurb. The reporters who had gathered in a ring for an impromptu press conference wanted to know if he supported the legislative deal that brought the government back to life last week. “I don’t know whether I would have voted for it,” Cuccinelli replied.

He had just finished rallying a crowd of supporters alongside some out-of-state allies, the Republican attorneys general of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and West Virginia. That morning, President Obama had given a defensive speech at the White House, insisting that the widespread problems plaguing the website for the new health-care law were being addressed and didn’t reflect on the law’s underlying virtues.

Cuccinelli, to put it mildly, was not buying this. He was the first state attorney general to challenge the Affordable Care Act in court—five minutes after it was signed into lawan effort eventually joined by virtually every Republican AG in the country. And though the Supreme Court eventually upheld the bulk of the law, he pointed Monday to the high court’s rejection of the mandatory Medicaid expansion as a partial victory.

Cuccinelli called the rollout a “national embarrassment,” and he called on the president to fire Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and delay the individual mandate a year. “It is tearing up opportunity across America,” he said of the law, as the 100 or so supporters who had crammed into the room murmured their approval.

Cuccinelli spoke for 21 minutes. After three minutes of introduction and generic exhortations of liberty, he spent nine minutes bashing Obamacare. Six minutes were then spent recalling other fights he’d undertaken as attorney general, including battling human trafficking and seeking exonerations of the wrongly convicted. The remaining three minutes were devoted to whipping up the volunteers to get out the vote in the final stretch.

Not a word was about the policies Cuccinelli would pursue as governor. There wasn't even a boilerplate sentence about education or transportation or energy or creating jobs. Asked about this omission later, a Cuccinelli aide told me the event was not representativeit was "a rally," as opposed to the "million policy rollouts" the candidate had previously performed. But the subject matter seemed telling of a candidate who critics say has failed to market himself to the middle of the electorate or present a coherent positive vision.

Democratic campaigners love to try to depict Republican candidates as Tea Partiers, even when the label is laughably inapt. Bill de Blasio, for example, the Democratic candidate for New York mayor, has wielded the term like a buggy whip against his opponent, the pro-choice, pro-gay marriage Republican Joe Lhota. But in Cuccinelli’s case, the label fits. He’s filed briefs on behalf of Arizona’s controversial SB1070 immigration law and sued the Environmental Protection Agency, which he calls the “employment prevention agency.” His book laments the dependency created by Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. He has defended sodomy laws, compared abortion to slavery, and attempted to investigate a University of Virginia climate scientist for fraud.

Cuccinelli’s legal gambits as attorney general have earned him acclaim from conservatives across the nation, even as they sparked heartburn in more moderate precincts of the GOP. In the run-up to this year’s elections, his main rival was supposed to be Bill Bolling, the Republican lieutenant governor. But Cuccinelli’s allies maneuvered to turn the state’s primary election into a nominating convention attended by a few hundred hard-core activists. (The convention also produced a surprise lieutenant-governor nominee in E.W. Jackson, a pastor and political newcomer notable for such unusual beliefs as the idea that yoga promotes satanism.) Bolling saw the writing on the wall and withdrew. He has spent the intervening months pointedly lamenting the rightward tilt of the party, both nationally and in his home state.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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