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The Cuccinelli Comeback

by Jim Geraghty

Virginia Republicans need it, but it’s far from guaranteed

This November, Republicans will face the first major test of whether their candidates can overcome “Akin-ization” — Democrats’ efforts to tie them to the theocratic bogeyman evoked by failed Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin in 2012.

All the greatest hits from the Obama campaign in 2012
 – “war on women,” insensitivity to minorities, “He’s fighting for his values, not ours” — are being hurled in Virginia against Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli.

The good news is that Cuccinelli’s story looks like it could have been written to dispel the perception of a “war on women.” Few GOP candidates can cite their groundbreaking work with a state university’s women’s-studies department, or trace their political awakening to a late-night scream of terror from an adjacent basement bedroom.

Cuccinelli was a student at the University of Virginia, living in an off-campus group home, and the young woman in the next bedroom awoke to find an intruder standing at the foot of her bed. The intruder quickly escaped out the window.

“I had never heard a scream like that. To this day I’ve never heard a scream like that,” Cuccinelli recalls in a video on his website that’s begging to be turned into a 30-second ad.

“I started trying to figure out, ‘Well, what can I do to reduce this?’ The number is pretty staggering. There was no university-centric attempt to reduce the incidence of sexual assault or to help the victims of it. So I did an independent study in the women’s-studies program and demanded they hire somebody whose full-time responsibility would be the prevention of sexual assault and the assistance for victims of it. The university wasn’t very open to it, so we held a protest out on the Rotunda and stuck around until they said they would get somebody full-time.” Cuccinelli helped establish a student group called Sexual Assault Facts and Education and designed a brochure on preventing sexual assault.

Throughout his time in the state senate and as attorney general, one of Cuccinelli’s crusades has been against human trafficking — an issue that regularly generates heartbreaking local-news stories but rarely wins votes. As a UVA senior he interned for Governor Douglas Wilder, a Democrat and the first African American elected governor of any state. He has donated $100,000 to Daily Planet, a Richmond-based nonprofit that provides medical and mental-health assistance to the homeless.

Then there’s Cuccinelli’s crusade on behalf of the wrongfully accused Thomas Haynesworth. In 1984 the 18-year-old Haynesworth was convicted on several counts of rape, robbery, and abduction, and sentenced to 74 years in prison. In 2011 DNA testing exonerated him of one of the rapes, and he was released on parole. Cuccinelli apologized for the state’s actions, gave Haynesworth — still technically listed as a sexual felon at the time — a clerical job in the state attorney general’s office, and ensured that he was legally exonerated in all of the cases (which had rested on dubious photo identifications of him). Cuccinelli later led an effort to award Haynesworth $1 million in compensation for his wrongful imprisonment.

After Labor Day weekend this year, the Cuccinelli campaign finally spotlighted the candidate’s efforts to exonerate this African-American man. In the ad, Haynesworth declares, “I never thought the attorney general himself would get involved in a case like this. He didn’t have to get involved, you know what I’m saying, but he saw the injustice that was done, and he tried to correct it. . . . To me, he’s a hell of a guy.” The campaign has some ground to make up, because Quinnipiac’s most recent poll in the state, conducted August 14 to 19, showed Terry McAuliffe, Cuccinelli’s Democratic opponent, leading among black Virginians, 74 percent to 7 percent.

To be sure, Cuccinelli is a conservative, and has taken plenty of conservative stances. He and his wife, Teiro, have seven children and homeschool them through sixth grade.

He pledges that as governor, he would reduce the state’s individual income-tax rate from 5.75 percent to 5 percent and reduce the business income-tax rate from 6 percent to 4 percent. While touring “Holly, Woods, and Vines,” a garden center on Route 1 in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County, in July, Cuccinelli peppered co-owner Vanessa Wheeler with nuts-and-bolts questions about what stands in the way of her small business’s growth, focusing in particular on taxes and employee health-insurance costs. Cuccinelli told Wheeler that he estimates Virginia’s existing tax and regulatory conditions, coupled with the normal pressures of supply costs, have prevented small businesses from hiring an additional 50,000 workers.

On education, Cuccinelli wants to outmaneuver voucher opponents by giving tax credits to those who donate money to provide private- and parochial-school tuition to poor, middle-class, and disabled students, and he wants to remove a provision in the state constitution that bans government aid to sectarian schools. He also wants to shift the power to approve charter schools to the state’s board of education. Currently, charter schools in Virginia must be approved by the existing local school board — and unsurprisingly, administrators are reluctant to approve the creation of new competition.

In a long 2010 profile, the Washington Post called Cuccinelli “the confounding conservative,” contrasting the compassionate anecdotes from his life with his orthodox conservative stances. (Since becoming attorney general, Cuccinelli has been the editorial board’s favorite target. Cuccinelli’s campaign dryly notes that the candidate’s first job was as a paperboy for the Post in seventh grade in Fairfax County.)

Cuccinelli finds himself trailing an opponent most Republicans thought would be spectacularly flawed and weak. McAuliffe, a longtime friend of the Clintons and perhaps the most successful political fundraiser in U.S. history — noted for his carnival barker’s style and a joyous shamelessness in his pursuit of campaign cash for Democrats — ran for governor in 2009 but lost in the Democratic primary. Rivals Creigh Deeds and Brian Moran mocked him as an empty suit with no real ties to the state.

“He doesn’t have any state governing experience, much less any governing experience at all,” Cuccinelli says. “I’ve got more and much deeper community ties. I’ve got an understanding of how state government works. I’m the only one who won’t need on-the-job training on November 5.” Unfortunately for Cuccinelli, Quinnipiac found 46 percent of likely voters thought McAuliffe — a former Democratic National Committee chairman — had the right kind of experience to be governor, and only 34 percent did not.

Cuccinelli’s difficulty in fighting off the attacks on him as a dangerous fundamentalist is indicative of how the Virginia Republican party’s fortunes have changed, so badly and so quickly.

Heading into 2012, life was good for Virginia Republicans. Barack Obama’s victory in the state in 2008 increasingly looked like a fluke driven by Bush fatigue. Bob McDonnell led the state GOP to a roaring victory in 2009, demolishing his rival in the governor’s race, Creigh Deeds, 58 percent to 41 percent. The rest of the ticket, Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, won by similar margins, and the GOP picked up six seats in the House of Delegates. In 2010, Republicans gained three U.S. House seats and came within 1,000 votes of winning a fourth. Then in 2011, Republicans picked up two state-senate seats, bringing that chamber to an even split.

Then the annus horribilis began.

The first big disappointment for the state GOP came on Election Night in 2012, when Obama won the state by about 150,000 votes (51 percent to 47 percent), the first time since 1948 that Virginia was more Democratic than the nation as a whole. For about a decade, Virginia’s Democratic-leaning D.C. suburbs and its rural, Republican-leaning downstate area had carried roughly equal political weight, but the 2012 defeats of Mitt Romney for president and George Allen for Senate suggested that the state’s population had shifted in favor of Democrats and the north.

Then in May of this year, McDonnell signed a $6 billion transportation plan that included raising the statewide sales tax from 5 percent to 5.3 percent, along with other tax increases. The legislation split the state GOP down the middle, with Cuccinelli proclaiming his opposition, but he nonetheless aims to shape the decisions that will come from the new funding: “There’s plenty of things that bill didn’t get at, like the over-centralization of transportation decisions, and the disconnect between land use and transportation responsibility that has caused, in my view, so many of our long-term problems. Then there’s the question of who will spend that money better — Union Terry or Frugal Ken?”

Perhaps worst of all, McDonnell was named the target of a criminal investigation over allegations that he and his family had received gifts from a wealthy donor, Jonnie Williams Sr., CEO of Star Scientific, a pharmaceutical firm. The gifts totaled more than $150,000, including a $6,500 Rolex watch for McDonnell, $15,000 worth of designer fashions from Bergdorf Goodman for his wife, Maureen, $15,000 in catering for their daughter’s wedding, $70,000 to a corporation owned by McDonnell and his sister, and a $50,000 check to Maureen. The governor failed to mention any of those gifts in his annual financial filings. On July 23, McDonnell apologized and announced that he had repaid loans from Williams amounting to roughly $120,000.

The gift controversy only slightly dented McDonnell’s approval ratings, but it wiped out his future. More than a few Republicans had hoped McDonnell would be a top-tier contender against Democratic senator Mark Warner in 2014.

Cuccinelli says he hasn’t talked about any of the gifts or the subsequent investigation with the governor. When asked whether the revelations of the Post coverage match the man he’s known and worked beside over the past four years, Cuccinelli says simply, “Yeah, I’d rather pass on that.” But his efforts to distance himself from the controversy aren’t working. By late August, the Cuccinelli campaign was running an ad declaring that the candidate had “personally authorized” the investigation into McDonnell.

“A gift ban or a threshold or something like that would be great,” Cuccinelli continues, when asked about McAuliffe’s call for a ban on gifts to lawmakers. “It is a bit rich [coming from] someone who put up a million dollars to the president of the United States . . . to get him into a house so his wife could run for the U.S. Senate in another state” — Cuccinelli pauses to briefly chuckle at that — “but I’m glad he [is] on board now.” (Back in 1999, McAuliffe put up $1.35 million in cash to secure a mortgage for the Clintons’ house in Chappaqua, N.Y.; he will be repaid, with interest from the bank, once the Clintons pay off the mortgage.)

Another potential problem arose out of nowhere at this year’s state Republican convention, where a six-way race for the lieutenant-governor nomination was won on the fourth ballot by E. W. Jackson, an African-American Baptist minister, after a rousing address to convention attendees. Jackson — one part Alan Keyes, one part Mark Levin — is a blogger’s dream but a controversy magnet: He compared Planned Parenthood to the KKK and on Twitter called Obama “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Jewish, pro-Islam, anti-capitalist.”

This was not the approach of Republicans in their successful 2009 outing, when the McDonnell campaign appeared to be writing a textbook on how to reassure social conservatives with his past ties (the candidate received an M.A./J.D. at Pat Robertson–founded Regent University) while winning over soccer moms by focusing relentlessly on the economy and quality-of-life issues such as traffic congestion. Democrats’ efforts to demonize him ran afoul of McDonnell’s cheerful, soft-spoken, nice-guy attitude.

Cuccinelli can be similarly soft-spoken, but his rhetoric is often sharper. It’s not quite clear whether he never chooses to pull punches or simply doesn’t know how. Here’s how he began his spring 2013 book, The Last Line of Defense: The New Fight for American Liberty:

In March 2010, President Barack Obama and the Democrat-controlled 111th Congress did to the American people what the tyrant we rebelled against in 1775 couldn’t even do when we were merely subjects: they declared that they suddenly had the unprecedented power to force Americans to purchase private products in the name of whatever “public good” the federal government deemed appropriate.

The Last Line of Defense isn’t a campaign book; a campaign book would consist of anodyne declarations like “I believe that children are our future,” and the cover would feature the candidate smiling, outdoors, with a dog. Instead the cover features blood-red letters against cracked marble, suggesting that American institutions are crumbling and perhaps on the verge of collapse.

Cuccinelli didn’t pull punches against Republicans, either, decrying

the creation of a subsidized prescription drug program for senior citizens called Medicare Part D. It was the largest entitlement program in forty years, and it was created under Republican president George W. Bush and passed by a Republican-controlled House and a Republican-controlled Senate.

Later, discussing No Child Left Behind and the Troubled Asset Relief Program, Cuccinelli declares, “I’m not afraid to say I was embarrassed for my party over these votes.”

To be sure, Virginia Democrats face challenges of their own. After his 2009 defeat, McAuliffe set out reinventing himself as a green entrepreneur who knew how to create jobs, pouring his energies into an electric-car firm, GreenTech Automotive. Now that firm is the subject of a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation, and the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general is investigating whether the department gave the company special favors in approving visas for deep-pocketed foreign investors. The Associated Press, the Washington Post, and the New York Times have all published stories on GreenTech Automotive in recent weeks; in all three cases, McAuliffe either declined to be interviewed or asked, through a spokesman, that questions about GreenTech be submitted in writing. The company that was supposed to be Exhibit A for McAuliffe’s job-creating savvy is suddenly a verboten subject.

So it’s no surprise that “they’re turning more and more to a straight negative assault that revolves heavily around social issues,” Cuccinelli says. “When you don’t have anything else, I understand that, but it isn’t particularly constructive. . . . I think if he tries to run a whole race on that, we’ll win.” This may be the one echo of 2009 that will work in Cuccinelli’s favor: a Democrat relentlessly insisting his opponent is Torquemada, running against a Republican attorney general who’s talking about job creation.

At first glance, Virginia is enjoying economic good times: The state’s unemployment rate is low, 5.3 percent, and in CNBC’s annual survey of the best states for business, it ranks fifth. But the Cuccinelli campaign is betting that there are still deep and not-so-hidden anxieties about the state’s job market.

“The priority is the same for voters, it’s still jobs and the economy,” Cuccinelli told me in a recent interview. “To the extent that we’re technically in a recovery, it’s a pretty weak recovery and it isn’t reaching everybody. Especially with the implementation of Obamacare, you’ve got small businesses that are frozen in place. Heck, our community colleges are pushing their adjunct professors down below 30 hours, and that’s happening in the private sector as well. That’s causing a lot of dislocation. Add to that furloughs and sequestration in the two most economically stable parts of the state, northern Virginia and southeastern Virginia, and you really get a decent amount of anxiety about the economy and job opportunities. So I still find that’s the first focus of voters.”

The big challenge for Cuccinelli and the state GOP is the same as the one facing national Republicans — how to win more votes among African Americans, Hispanics, young people, and women. Traditional methods are failing as the electorate grows more diverse, young, and urban.

But Cuccinelli is undaunted. “We’re growing this party, and we need to keep doing it!” he cheered before a small crowd in Fredericksburg earlier this year. Once best known for Civil War battles, Fredericksburg, about 50 miles south of Washington, is the state’s fastest-growing city and an indicator of how far the outer, outer exurbs of the nation’s capital have spread. More than 73,000 live in greater Fredericksburg, and about 35,000 of them commute to Washington and its suburbs for work each day.

Cuccinelli speaks from that most red-state of platforms, a pickup truck, but he forgoes flannel or jeans, dressing business-casual in a white collared shirt with the sleeves rolled up and black dress pants. “If we’re going to win, we got to grow to do it, inviting more and more folks to this team,” Cuccinelli says. “What we bring to offer to them is opportunity! Opportunity for the government to get out of the way, rather than telling them what to do in the economy. A focus on creating jobs in the private sector, not the government telling them where those jobs are going to be, and who the winners and losers are going to be. My opponent’s done a good bit of that, and he doesn’t have a good track record. It’s cost the people of Mississippi a good bit of money, too.” (McAuliffe located GreenTech’s factory there instead of in Virginia.)

Cuccinelli knows that a tsunami of negative ads will hit him this fall; he’s been the Democrats’ top target before, in three state-senate elections in Fairfax County and the 2009 attorney general’s race. He’s been outspent four times and won four times.

If Cuccinelli’s underdog winning streak ends, it will mean a bad year for Virginia’s Republicans is stretching into two — with no end in sight.

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