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.”

Cuccinelli’s ultraconservative record limited his fundraising reach, as did a toxic scandal involving gifts and money to him and the governor from a local businessman. Money is unlikely to be a problem for governors elected with Tea Party support and seeking second terms, such as Rick Scott in Florida, Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania, and Scott Walker in Wisconsin, but it could be a major challenge for Tea Party candidates running for governor in Arizona, Idaho, and Nebraska, or running for Congress.

Cuccinelli finally seems to have found his groove by refocusing on the new health care law, a promising pathway for the Tea Party in 2014. Although he was the first attorney general to challenge Obamacare, Cuccinelli didn’t run an ad condemning the law until late September, during the chaotic run-up to the government shutdown. A better-timed attack hit Tuesday, as concerns escalated about the website’s malfunctions and the law’s impact on existing insurance plans. “We need people to know that November 5 is a referendum in Virginia on Obamacare,” Cuccinelli said.

With at least one poll showing McAuliffe’s lead narrowing, some Cuccinelli supporters are wondering if he spent too much time jabbing at his opponent’s obvious blemishes. “You have to stay on a consistent message, and perhaps Obamacare was the message all along,” said Tea Party activist Russ Moulton, who lives in north-central Virginia. As President Obama’s approval sinks to new lows in part because of his handling of the health care law, the Affordable Care Act is looking like the money issue for the Tea Party in 2014 since it connects the movement to the mainstream.

Brent Bozell is making no apologies. The chairman of ForAmerica, a conservative grassroots group, said, “The moderate branch of the Republican Party turned its back on Cuccinelli, and that hurt him big time. When this is all over, win or lose, there’s got to be a conversation about that.” But in the dialogue Bozell envisions, the Tea Party isn’t compromising its principles and groveling for support. Like many in the movement, he points to the failure of mainstream Republicans, such as former presidential nominees Mitt Romney and John McCain. If anything, Bozell said, Cuccinelli should have been more aggressive in defending conservatism.

“Running toward the middle is the old paradigm,” he said. “Politics is solidifying and mobilizing your base—and the hell with the middle.”

McAuliffe is trying to have it all. Taking his cue from Obama, he’s targeting black, gay, and young voters, and touting gun control and abortion rights. But he’s waffled on coal regulations and offshore oil drilling to avoid rankling conservatives and the business community, and one of his closing ads touts “sensible business-friendly policies.” That’s putting to the test Bozell’s theory that the middle doesn’t matter anymore.