Politics & Policy

With Cuccinelli, Door to Door

Running for governor in a purple state, he mixes in warmth and charm with his conservative message.

Fairfax, Va. — Ken Cuccinelli couldn’t watch the video clip of President Obama going 2 for 22 in shooting free throws. As a basketball fan, he says, he found it too painful. “I sort of felt for him,” Cuccinelli recalls. “There are just some things about being president that are difficult.”

“I don’t care whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat,” he adds. “Going 2 for 22 is embarrassing. I just don’t think we should beat on the man for that.” 

Yet Cuccinelli can’t resist taking one jab at Obama: “Maybe he’s putting his recreational time into golf, and so he’s not getting his basketball time in,” he cracks. Still, “I could easily see going 2 for 22,” Cuccinelli laughs. “So I’m not going to say anything.”

Keeping his opinion to himself is not something Cuccinell is known for. As Virginia attorney general, he led the legal fight against Obamacare. In February, he released a new book on politics that was rather less bland than most politicians’ books: “If Virginia’s ultra-conservative attorney general needs to appeal to moderate Republicans in his campaign for governor, his new book probably isn’t going to help,” wrote the Associated Press about The Last Line of Defense: The New Fight for American Liberty. A U.S. News interview with Cuccinelli about the book was headlined “Ken Cuccinelli: Obama Has Trampled the Constitution and Hurt Our Economy.”

Cuccinelli brushes off concerns that he’s too conservative to be elected governor in Virginia, a once solidly Republican state that went for Obama narrowly in 2008 and 2012. He doesn’t deny that Virginia is “about as split as you can be.” But he points out that while commonwealth voters have elected Democrats at the federal level in recent years (Obama, Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner), Republicans still dominate the top positions in the state government, including governor (Bob McDonnell) and lieutenant governor (Bill Bolling). “That’s fine,” Cuccinelli remarks of the newly purple Virginia. “Competition’s a good thing. So let’s compete.”

On this first Saturday in April, Cuccinelli is at the opening ceremonies for local Little League teams. There is a parade: Cuccinelli, like other local politicos, rides in a convertible, waving to the bystanders, who are bundled up in brightly colored coats on this sunny, chilly day. Wearing a navy sport coat, a yellow polo shirt, and loose blue jeans, with a baseball glove on his left hand, the graying Cuccinelli looks Dad-like enough to give Full House’s Bob Saget a run for his money. Marching behind the politicians are hundreds of Little League youngsters who play for the Blue Wahoos, Ironbirds, and Hot Rods, among other teams.

At the baseball field where the parade ends, Cuccinelli points out that if one of his aides stations himself at the announcer’s booth behind home plate, the aide will be positioned at a great angle to a capture Cucinelli throwing one of the ceremonial first pitches. When Cuccinelli throws out the pitch, the aide snaps the shot. Hours later, Cuccinelli’s campaign tweets a wide-angle photo of Cuccinelli on the mound, about to throw, with hundreds of Little League kids behind him. Cuccinelli was right. It’s a great angle. 

Walking to the car afterward, I ask Cuccinelli about his family. He and his wife, Teiro, have seven children, ranging from three years old to college age. “Going home” is his favorite part about having so many kids. “It’s a great arrival when they’re up, which is most days,” he says. “It’s wonderful. I don’t even know how to describe it.” Swimming, not baseball, is the sport most favored by the Cuccinelli family. Cuccinelli says he’s risen many a Saturday morning at five to take the children to swim meets. 

The five oldest children are daughters; the two youngest, who tussle occasionally, are boys. (Cuccinelli refers to one of his sons as “Osama bin Cute-in” because he’s a “domestic terrorist.”) Cuccinelli insists that he generally does not, as do the fathers of some large families I know, accidentally call his children by the wrong name. “The two there used to be a problem with were [daughters] Riley and Reagan,” he reminisces. “We named two children in a row with the same first letter. It never occurred to me this would be a problem, but in that period of their lives where I needed to yell at them a lot, then it was a problem,” he says lightly, before launching into an imitation of how he would shout their names.

#page#Reagan wasn’t initially slated to be named after the president. “She was going to be Adalida, which was torture to my wife,” Cuccinelli recalls. But “she had her way on the first three, and I said that this is my turn, and so she was Adalida until eight months in.” Then one day his wife called him up at work: “‘How about Reagan for Adalida?’ And I said, ‘Well, for Reagan, I’ll give up Adalida.’” His fondness for “Adalida” comes from George Strait’s 1995 country song by that name.

The older Cuccinnelli children are still in school, and the younger ones are homeschooled. Cuccinelli, who majored in mechanical engineering as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, helps the older children with algebra. “They like to hate it, I love to love it,” he says of the subject. “I love algebra,” he stresses. “Love it.”

#ad#On the car ride to a campaign event, I pepper Cuccinelli with questions, and he’s good-natured about the randomness of the topics. Does he have a favorite Supreme Court case? Cuccinelli is stumped: “No one’s ever asked me that before.” He doesn’t have one. What book would he write about if he had to write a college-admissions essay? “Well, mine,” he says. Not allowed, I tell him. “That’s fine, then. McAuliffe’s,” he says, alluding to What a Party! My Life Among Democrats: Presidents, Candidates, Donors, Activists, Alligators, and Other Wild Animals, by his opponent in the gubernatorial race, Terry McAuliffe. “Although if I wanted to get in, I probably wouldn’t write on that one,” he snarks. Ultimately, he picks Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

Rand, Cuccinelli says, “captured an awful lot of the battle for our government that’s going on right now” and saw “the natural course of bigger government, [the problem of] relying on it for everything, and the control it takes over everything as it goes down that path.” Cuccinelli observes that “we’re having a debate about that right now in this country, about whether that’s the right way to go or not.”

Still, he doesn’t consider himself a Randian, because of Rand’s “Objectivist philosophy” and “very selfishly focused” mindset. He notes “the foundation that she appears to be building upon” and finds it to be not “consistent with the Founders’ vision for the country.” 

Cuccinelli has volunteered for a variety of causes: “food drives, tutoring in high school, sexual-assault prevention in college, coached a basketball team.” As a law student at George Mason University, he occasionally helped at a shelter for the homeless on cold nights. He’d go in around 9 p.m. and, after sleeping some, make breakfast and talk with the people there. They would converse, he remembers, about “everything you can imagine,” including sports. Sometimes they would play cards. The purpose of the shelter was to “give them a respite more than anything.”

“I didn’t have any silver bullets for them about how to proceed in life or anything,” he reflects soberly. “A lot of them are suffering, whether it was drug addiction or mental illness or they had other issues that were contributing to their homelessness. It wasn’t purely ‘I can’t afford some place to stay.’ There were reasons they couldn’t. And we weren’t equipped there to deal with that. We were just trying to take care of them for a night and let them know there were people who wanted to take care of them for a night.”

Helping others is a topic that Cuccinelli returns to when addressing his own volunteers in the parking lot of a campaign office. Those assembled to spend their Saturday knocking on doors to promote Cuccinelli’s candidacy include a mother and her toddler daughter, senior citizens, and a handful of young adults. Two people are wearing pink-rimmed sunglasses: the little girl and a young man in an argyle sweater. In the parking lot, a car with a Cuccinelli bumper sticker adjoins a car whose bumper sticker bears the message “Pray the rosary.”

Much of Cuccinelli’s speech is standard stump-speech fare. Quoting former Virginia governor Brian Moran’s jab at McAuliffe, for example, he says that “we need a fighter, not a fundraiser,” But he also touts his efforts, as a citizen, at “fighting sexual assault, working to prevent homelessness, helping people suffering from mental illness and veterans.”

After mingling with volunteers (“Nice shirt,” he tells a young woman wearing a campaign T-shirt), Cuccinelli goes to a nearby neighborhood to knock on a few doors himself. This area is well known to him. “I used to walk this neighborhood as a state senator,” he tells a voter.

#page#Fueled by sweet tea, which he gave up for Lent, Cuccinelli tackles a few homes. No lawn is safe from his brisk stride; he regularly takes the most direct route between doors rather than walking over to where the sidewalk begins. (“My wife’s a gardener,” Cuccinelli tells one resident. “I’d put Astroturf down everywhere, but I get outvoted one to one every year.”) At the first house, the man living there, a Cuccinelli fan who recalls seeing the attorney general on Greta Van Susteren’s Fox News show, asks why Republicans are doing so badly among young adults. Ron Paul, Cuccinelli rejoins, “did incredibly well among them, and he was talking about freedom, and how it matters in government and in their life” — a principle, he speculates, “that matters more to younger voters than it does to the rest of us.”

#ad#At the second home, an old blue-and-white Cuccinelli sign, reading “Re-elect Ken Cuccinelli. Republican for State Senate,” rests on the ground between the front steps and a bed of yellow daffodils. A man and a woman come to the door. Years ago, their son was one of several teens who volunteered for Cuccinelli. “Half of them were on the track team, including [their son], and so they could lit-drop a precinct in like three hours. It was like cheating,” Cuccinelli remembers. “It was like cheating,” he repeats. “It was awesome.”

The middle-aged couple tell Cuccinelli they love the Christmas cards that he and his wife send out, which include photos of the entire Cuccinelli family. “Have you ever seen the movie Babe?” Cuccinelli asks. “All our kids have watched it a million times. So you know, this pig can separate the chickens.” Cuccinelli recounts a scene in which Babe has separated the brown from the white chickens in the course of herding them. Referring to the Christmas card, one of the Cuccinelli children once said, “Hey, look — brown chickens, white chickens,” because the photo was divided between the family members who were more olive-skinned (thanks to Cuccinelli’s Italian heritage) and those who were paler. “It alternates by child,” Cuccinelli says. “It’s brown chicken, white chicken, brown chicken, white chicken. . . .  That one picture is pretty funny for us,” he chuckles. When he leaves, the wife laughs: “Give our best to your wife,” she tells Cuccinelli, “and all those . . . chickens.”

Elsewhere in the neighborhood, a middle-aged woman suffering from an ear infection answers in her bathrobe and pajamas. Although she is shy about her attire, she still chats for a few minutes. Another woman, fetched by her preteen daughter, listens impatiently as Cuccinelli talks. She tells him she likely won’t start thinking about the election until September. I ask Cuccinelli if it’s awkward when people try to hustle him away. “Yes,” he says. “And I’m careful not to make that hard for them.”

He passes one house with a black Chevy Tahoe parked in the driveway, the back plastered with bumper stickers whose messages include “Obama ’08,” “Mark Warner Senate,” and “Obama Biden.” “That one,” Cuccinelli says, “would be tough. Not impossible.” He passes on by.

It is clear that Cuccinelli is an old hand at door-knocking. He is irritated that he has been given a binder instead of clipboard for recording information about the voters he talks to. “It looks like I’m deposing the person,” he complains. At one house, he notes that he used to start writing a note on a piece of campaign material after ringing the doorbell. If by the time he had finished the note nobody had answered his ring, he would tuck the note in the door and move on. For 22 years, he reflects, he has been knocking on doors and touting candidates. For the past eleven years, he’s been a politician, and so has had to do it to promote his own campaigns. 

Do you prefer, I ask him, to knock doors as a volunteer or as a candidate? Cuccinelli doesn’t hesitate. “I much prefer being a volunteer,” he responds. “No pressure.” 

“Less pressure,” he then corrects himself. “You still want to win.”

Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.

Katrina Trinko — Katrina Trinko is a political reporter for National Review. Trinko is also a member of USA TODAY’S Board of Contributors, and her work has been published in various media outlets ...

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