Politics & Policy

Virginia Gentleman

A prospective state attorney general goes back to the founders.

Several prints of war paintings hang in the law offices of Virginia state senator Ken Cuccinelli, but the most prominent is titled Sons of Erin: It shows a brigade of Irish-born Union soldiers charging into the Battle of Antietam — or Sharpsburg, as it’s known in Dixie. The Irish brigade, comprised of poor immigrants — many fresh off the boat — lost over 500 men that day. “The Irish were the best fighters on both sides of the war,” says Cuccinelli, a self-described Civil War buff who is half-Irish himself.

Cuccinelli is running for attorney general as a conservative Republican in a right-leaning state that’s having a fling with Democrats. Last year, voters delivered their electoral votes to Barack Obama. Virginia’s governor is a Democrat and so are its two senators. Perhaps this trend makes Cuccinelli an underdog, like those Antietam warriors and their ancestors back in Ireland. The candidate certainly sees it that way, except in one important respect: “They always lose,” he says.

#ad#So far, the 40-year-old Cuccinelli has always won. In 2002, he ran in a special election to represent Fairfax County in Virginia’s senate. He won again a year later. Then, in 2007 — a rotten year for Republicans — he had his toughest race yet, winning by about 100 votes in a race that required a recount. He expects a close election this November, too, against Democratic state delegate Steve Shannon.

“I’ve been outspent in all three races,” he says, showing the pride of a businessman who is satisfied to have done the job well for half the cost. It may happen again this fall: Shannon currently leads in fundraising. But Cuccinelli insists that victory is just a means, not the end. “The point is to accomplish the agenda,” he says. What is the agenda? “I’m running to advance a more limited-government, pro-family agenda. The founding fathers would approve.”

The founding fathers play a critical role in Cuccinelli’s political philosophy. He doesn’t have a favorite, but he has a natural affinity for fellow Virginians like Patrick Henry, James Madison, and George Mason. For Cuccinelli, though, the ideas are more important than the people, and he makes the point with another Virginian, Thomas Jefferson. “He articulated the principles spectacularly,” says Cuccinelli. “But he didn’t always live up to them.”

Cuccinelli says the founding fathers got the principles right: “It’s a foundation that can’t be improved upon.” He offers this foundation as a remedy for disenchanted Republicans. “My view is that the GOP platform should read ‘Life, liberty, and property.’ It would save us a lot of paper.” He goes on to criticize Republican efforts of the past decade. “What have the Republicans been supporting? No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, and supporting TARP I. So much for the party of small government.”

Cuccinelli becomes most animated when he’s talking about the philosophy behind the principles. He cites the Declaration of Independence’s most famous line, about the self-evident truths that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Then he makes an important observation: “Most people forget the next phrase, which explains that it is for these purposes that governments are created.” Cuccinelli considers this phrase — “That, to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men” — the key to understanding what the founders were thinking: Rights are inherent and universal, and governments exist only to guarantee them, not to grant them.

To illustrate this idea, Cuccinelli points to the recent Supreme Court case over gun ownership in the District of Columbia. In his written opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller, Justice Antonin Scalia explained that the Second Amendment did not grant people the right to defend themselves with arms but only reaffirmed the preexisting right of a free people to do so. Cuccinelli leans back in his chair and paraphrases Aquinas: “Natural law is written from the hearts of all men.”

“Read from the founding period and do it continuously,” he says. “That’s what I tell new legislators.” Cuccinelli wants to educate Virginians about Mason, Madison, and the rest. “All of the great founders, except for Adams, are from Virginia,” he says. “When I run in Virginia, I talk about those Virginians.”

In the contest against Shannon, Cuccinelli will need more than a good reading list. “We have a significant grassroots advantage,” he says. “We know grassroots better than anyone else, and we’re more focused on that.” He claims his strategy of knocking on doors gave him the small margin of victory in 2007. This approach won’t work as well statewide, though he plans to repeat the practice as much as possible and encourage his volunteers to do the same.

Will strong grassroots efforts put Cuccinelli over the top in November? Although the races are separate, he’ll run with the GOP’s nominee for governor, Bob McDonnell, who is polling roughly even against Democrat Creigh Deeds. A good election for McDonnell –the state’s former attorney general — will help Cuccinelli’s odds. Even so, the prospective attorney general says he won’t be counting on McDonnell’s coattails. He believes he has the secrets to success: “I’m willing to lose, and I won’t abandon my principles.”


– Michael Warren, a Collegiate Network intern at National Review, studies economics and history at Vanderbilt University.

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