How Ken Cuccinelli Blew It

The Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate's struggles show why it's hard for the Tea Party to win outside of deep-red states.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

In the homestretch of the race to become Virginia’s next governor, Republican Ken Cuccinelli shared a stage with Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky while Democrat Terry McAuliffe rallied with former President Clinton. The contrast between the two headliners tells you a lot about why Cuccinelli is the underdog in Tuesday’s election. The state attorney general could look only to a Tea Party hero to help mobilize turnout. And that was the high point. In recent weeks, he’s dredged up C-list conservative celebrities with even less reach, such as radio talk-show host Mark Levin and the 19 Kids and Counting Duggar family. Meanwhile, McAuliffe has been palling around with a widely adored two-term president.

The pairings reveal more than the simple advantage of being a former Democratic Party national chairman who’s tight with a former occupant of the White House. It’s a red blinking light for the Tea Party movement. Granted, Tea Party politicians can thrive in Republican-heavy states or congressional districts, but by their very nature they face enormous challenges in expanding and diversifying battlegrounds such as Virginia. Any candidate who swears allegiance to conservative orthodoxy automatically forsakes constituencies needed to build winning electoral coalitions on big, broad canvases.

“It’s a big problem, and I don’t think the Republican Party has figured out the answer,” said Jerry Rich, a Republican Party activist from Fairfax County, sporting a Cuccinelli sticker on his blue blazer at the Paul rally. “The main thing for any politician is to win.”

No wonder that Cuccinelli, looking out at the mostly white, older, and enthusiastic crowd packed into a hotel ballroom, mused, “I think we should just have the election in here.”

In a state President Obama carried twice, Cuccinelli’s rigid policy positions endear him to the Tea Party but cut him off from key swaths of voters. The attorney general assailed a $600 million transportation-funding package to relieve the state’s economy-choking congestion, because it raises taxes—heresy in Tea Party world. But traffic is a top issue in commuter-heavy Northern Virginia, where statewide races are largely won and lost. The bipartisan initiative was also widely applauded by the business community, a key GOP constituency that blew off Cuccinelli and, in some cases, ran into McAuliffe’s arms.

Cuccinelli’s opposition to immigration-reform efforts on Capitol Hill distanced him from other key voting blocs. Even Paul, in an overture to the fast-growing Hispanic and Asian-American communities, came out in favor of legalizing undocumented workers, although he voted against the Senate bill because he said it wouldn’t secure the border.

Cuccinelli did try to broaden his appeal by insisting his top priority is the economy and promising to cut taxes. He aired a moving TV ad about leading the charge to free a wrongfully convicted African-American man imprisoned for 27 years. He touted his advocacy for better mental-health care and efforts to combat sex trafficking.

None of these issues broke through, in part because of McAuliffe’s multimillion-dollar avalanche of ads pillorying Cuccinelli as an antiabortion zealot who wants to confiscate women’s birth-control pills. “This whole race is framed around him hating women,” said Jamie Radtke, founder of the Virginia Tea Party Patriots. “Governor [Bob] McDonnell had just as strong of a pro-life record when he ran in 2009, but he wasn’t outspent like this.”

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Beth Reinhard is a political correspondent for National Journal.

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