“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.