From the looks of it, Ken Cuccinelli II isn’t enjoying his run for governor of Virginia. We’re in a small white SUV, driving from his campaign office in Fairfax County outside Washington to a rally in neighboring Loudoun County. Cuccinelli, the 45-year-old Republican attorney general, sits in the front passenger’s seat and steals glances at his speech notes or out the window. He seems a little annoyed by all the questions I’m lobbing at him from the back seat.
Unprompted, he sounds off against what he considers a hostile media. “They ask nothing but process questions,” he says. “They report on nothing but process. They don’t bother trying to talk much about policy differences or competency differences.”
I decide to ask him about substance. Which previous Virginia governor does he look to as a model for the way he’d want to govern? He doesn’t name one offhand, though he says he thinks about the 1993 campaign of fellow Republican George Allen, who won despite starting the race 20 points behind.
“He campaigned on a few specific things and was clear about them, and when he got elected, he had a Democrat house and Democrat senate, and he got all three of them—abolition of parole, welfare reform, and education reform—I believe because he campaigned on them,” Cuccinelli says.
What are Cuccinelli’s own three specific things?
“The tax proposal to get job creation going,” he says, slowly. “Our school proposals to reform our standards of learning test and open up opportunities for kids in the worst performing schools. Those would probably be number one and number two.”
He pauses, maybe to think of a third issue. Suddenly, we’re cut off by an aggressive driver in a pickup, who zooms ahead of us just before he runs out of road. We hit the brakes hard.
“That was a confident shot, wasn’t it?” Cuccinelli says, before returning to his answer.
“Those would probably be the top two,” he says, finally.
Unlike Allen, Cuccinelli is trailing badly in his race for governor, and he knows it. The day after our interview, Rasmussen Reports released a poll showing him 17 points behind McAuliffe, the Clinton mega-fundraiser and former DNC chairman. That gap may be an outlier, but the truth is McAuliffe has been ahead in all but one poll since July. The Real Clear Politics average gives the Democrat a 10-point margin.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Back in May, a Washington Post poll showed Cuccinelli ahead by 10 points. The last nine elected governors of the Commonwealth have come from the opposite party from the occupant of the White House. Barack Obama carried Virginia again in 2012, but he did slightly worse than in 2008, and there was little evidence the state had grown significantly more Democratic since 2009. As a Republican attorney general, Cuccinelli was in a good position to succeed to the governor’s mansion—both Bob McDonnell and Jim Gilmore had been AG before they were elected governor.
And that wasn’t even considering Cuccinelli’s opponent. McAuliffe was a dream candidate for Republicans to run against: a New York-born carpetbagging party hack who had lost a three-way Democratic primary for governor in 2009. This time around, McAuliffe was selling himself as a businessman. In 2010, he launched an electric-car company called GreenTech Automotive, creating the impression he would build the plant in Virginia and bring new manufacturing jobs to the state. Instead, GreenTech’s factory is located in Mississippi, and production on actual cars remains sluggish. Early in the race, GOP opposition researchers reminded reporters of some of McAuliffe’s most cringe-inducing moments, like the time he stopped at a Democratic party fundraiser on the way home from the hospital with his wife and newborn son. “I felt bad for Dorothy, but it was a million bucks for the Democratic party,” said McAuliffe in a sound-bite-ready excerpt from the audio version of his memoir, What a Party!
Taped on the dashboard in front of Cuccinelli’s seat is a piece of paper with another quotation from McAuliffe’s book. “Now let me tell you, it’s a lot easier to raise money for a governor,” McAuliffe wrote on page 77. “They have all kinds of business to hand out, road contracts, construction jobs, you name it.”
Cuccinelli says he has the line there to remind him what kind of man he’s running against—the type who sees government and politics as a way to “hand out” business and favors. He shakes his head at the idea.
“I think [it] begs the question of, what’s he doing in the race?” Cuccinelli says. “Why is he here?” He stares out the window as we pass through the Northern Virginia suburbs.
What McAuliffe is doing in the race is winning, and Virginia Republicans are struggling to figure out why. Tom Davis, the former Republican congressman from Northern Virginia, supports Cuccinelli but says his campaign isn’t offering anything to Davis’s old constituents, who are more moderate than most Republicans. The bedroom communities of Washington are more like New Jersey, he says, and they make up the part of Virginia that’s growing. Cuccinelli’s campaign isn’t trying to win votes here, though.
“They have a great model for southwest Virginia,” Davis says, referring to the culturally conservative region Republicans have lately been sweeping.
John Hager, a former lieutenant governor and state GOP chairman, says a barrage of negative advertising from McAuliffe has “thrown the race off.”
“Ken’s had a hard time settling on a message that resonates,” says Hager.
It hasn’t helped that Cuccinelli is being outspent by McAuliffe and outside liberal groups. McAuliffe ads litter TV, radio, and the Internet in places like Northern Virginia, all pushing the message that the pro-life, anti-gay-marriage Cuccinelli is a political extremist. “Ken Cuccinelli,” says one recent radio ad. “He’s way too extreme for Virginia.”
Cuccinelli counters the charge of social conservative extremism by responding quietly and hoping no one notices. Here’s an example. In March, a federal court ruled that Virginia’s anti-sodomy law was unconstitutional, and Cuccinelli appealed the decision. Prosecutors across the country use anti-sodomy laws not to police bedrooms but to get harsher sentences for child molesters, and the specific case that was overturned involved a 47-year-old man soliciting oral sex from a 17-year-old girl.
Nevertheless, the McAuliffe campaign pounced, citing it as an example of the attorney general’s focus on a “divisive ideological agenda.” Many mainstream and liberal media outlets wrote the story up as such. Cuccinelli shot back by issuing a press release affirming that he is “committed to protecting Virginia’s children from predators” and directed reporters to a website with all the facts about anti-sodomy laws.
“That was a classic example of the media reporting their lies as fact,” Cuccinelli tells me when I ask him about the episode. “Once they figured out what was going on, they said, ‘Oh well,’ and moved on.”
The Cuccinelli team had moved on, too, and not soon enough as far as they were concerned. As one strategist advising the campaign put it, “There’s only one candidate talking about social issues, and that’s Terry McAuliffe.”
Michael Warren is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.