Ken Cuccinelli is accustomed to winning political races against the odds. Now the conservative Virginia attorney general faces what might be his longest odds yet in his bid for his state’s governorship in the election eight days from now. But wise conservatives won’t count him out just yet.
First, the bad news: Both of the two most recent two polls on Cuccinelli’s campaign against Terry McAuliffe, an infamous political fixer during the Clinton presidency, show Cuccinelli trailing by seven points, and an outlying poll on October 20 had him down 17. It is a campaign where all the luck has seemed to go against the Republican attorney general: a scandal enveloping current Republican governor Bob McDonnell; a GOP nominee for lieutenant governor who has done more to hurt than help his party’s brand; and the horribly mismanaged federal-government shutdown that left Republicans politically battered nationwide and that particularly angered the hordes of federal workers who live in northern Virginia.
The worse news is that while McAuliffe proved yet again to be a prodigiously talented fundraiser, Cuccinelli has been hampered by the bizarre reluctance of conservatives and Republicans to fully fund the only highly competitive race of the year, anywhere in the country, that featured a clear-cut choice between Left and Right. All year long it has seemed that right-leaning groups have been more interested in funding internecine warfare than in actually winning general elections. McAuliffe’s $26.3 million raised through September dwarfed Cuccinelli’s total of $16.8 million raised during the same period.
When combined with the predictable efforts of the Washington Post and other media to paint a caricature of Cuccinelli as antediluvian on issues relating to women, McAuliffe’s own onslaught of negative campaigning has effectively marginalized the AG in the consciousness of much of the voting public.
So why, then, should anybody still give Cuccinelli a chance?
Four big reasons: His own electoral record, the nature of McAuliffe’s appeal (or lack thereof), McAuliffe’s long record of sleazy financial dealings, and the increasingly embarrassing non-launch of Obamacare.
Cuccinelli’s own record is clear: Usually running as an underfunded underdog, Cuccinelli has won an unbroken string of elections since 2002. It was in a special election that year that the Republican establishment backed a man named Mike Thompson for the state senate — but Cuccinelli won the nomination anyway. He won the general election, too, even though his Republican predecessor endorsed his Democratic opponent, and then he held the seat in a tough race in 2003. In 2007, as Democrats were romping statewide and pundits assumed Cuccinelli was political carrion, he held on to his seat by a 92-vote margin out of 37,000 cast. Finally, in 2009, he again was not the establishment’s choice for attorney general, but he swept the primary and then won that fall with a whopping 58 percent of the vote.
Demonstrably, this is a man who knows how to turn out a grassroots vote on Election Day.
As for McAuliffe, the simple fact of his scorched-earth campaign is that he has offered nothing positive for Virginians to vote for. A carpetbagger with no record of service to the Old Dominion (and a record of badly failed investments elsewhere), McAuliffe seems to have placed all his bets on scaring people, often with falsehoods, about Cuccinelli’s supposed extremism. He may succeed in convincing suburban women not to vote for the Republican, despite Cuccinelli’s stellar leadership on a host of “compassion” issues, such as preventing sexual assault. From most vantage points, though, McAuliffe himself seems to have inspired enthusiasm or loyalty in remarkably few. Anecdotal evidence shows an even higher-than-usual incidence of “pox on both houses” attitudes — and that leads to low turnouts, which tend to favor the candidate who has a history of inspiring a significant subset of the electorate.
Cuccinelli, with his signal conservative leadership on fiscal and social issues across the board and his trailblazing legal opposition to Obamacare (about which, more in a moment), has a devoted following who will go the extra mile and work the extra hour for him. It is a loyalty and intensity of followership that McAuliffe can’t come close to matching.
Meanwhile, there still is time for the Virginia electorate finally to recoil against what even a Washington Post news story on Sunday called McAuliffe’s “long history of controversial business and political schemes,” which include sweetheart deals for Bill and Hillary Clinton and failed “green tech” investments. The Post piece recounts what is certainly (in the Post’s words) the most “ghoulish” of all those investments — namely, one that allowed McAuliffe “to receive a stranger’s death benefits.” At a phone press conference Sunday afternoon, the New York Times’s Thomas Edsall framed a question with the acknowledgment that the story by its very nature “does seem very damaging” to McAuliffe. If the “betting on a stranger’s death” story gets wider traction this week, it could cause a late collapse in McAuliffe’s support.
Finally, though, what Cuccinelli appears to be banking on, in terms of closing campaign themes, is the growing backlash against Obamacare, in a way that credits Cuccinelli’s legal work against it.
“The single biggest budget decision the next governor is going to make is whether to support or oppose Medicaid expansion under Obamacare,” Cuccinelli told me in a phone interview on Saturday. “Terry McAuliffe didn’t even think Obamacare went far enough: He wanted a full-fledged ‘public option.’ Government just can’t be too big for him — especially if he is directing it.”
Cuccinelli is making the case that the president’s health plan “isn’t just a failure of the website; it’s a failure for insurance, too — if people even get through the website, it’s even worse for them once they do.” The more this happens, he thinks, the more voter disgust will attach to a Democrat such as McAuliffe who supported a government takeover.
Virginia campaigns often “break late,” Cuccinelli notes, and he obviously is working tirelessly to make it break in his direction. He might well succeed.
— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom.