Turnout Will Be Key for Troubled Cuccinelli Campaign

Image: Turnout Will Be Key for Troubled Cuccinelli Campaign

Sunday, 20 Oct 2013 06:14 PM

By John Mercurio

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It wasn’t supposed to be this way for Republican Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.

Young and dynamic, Cuccinelli, 45, jumped into this year’s gubernatorial race armed with fierce support from a national network of conservatives. His gaffe-prone rival Terry McAuliffe’s only previous foray into elective politics ended with a third-place primary finish in a 2009 bid for governor.

If that wasn’t enough, the Republican had history on his side: In Virginia’s past nine gubernatorial elections, the party that won the governor’s race did not occupy the White House, a trend experts attribute to voters venting their frustration at Washington.

Urgent: Do You Support Sen. Ted Cruz's Efforts to Defund Obamacare? Vote Here.

This year, however, that frustration is trained squarely at Cuccinelli. A darling of the tea party movement, he is drawing criticism in the campaign’s final days from moderate and independent voters furious with his Capitol Hill allies for inciting the federal government shutdown.

But the shutdown was only the latest challenge for Cuccinelli, a red-meat conservative who has been indirectly linked to a probe into ethical misconduct by Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell. Throw in a surprisingly gaffe-free campaign by McAuliffe and the landscape starts to tilt heavily against the Republican.

Recent polls show Cuccinelli trailing McAuliffe by at least 8 points – and by more than 20 points among women. He started October with $1 million in the bank; McAuliffe reported $1.8 million. Overall, McAuliffe has collected $20 million to Cuccinelli’s $12.4 million.

“Cuccinelli has had some bad breaks in this campaign: Gov. McDonnell's gift-gate, the refusal of moderate Republicans to back him, and now the government shutdown,” Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia, said in an interview with Newsmax. “I'm sure he was hoping for a different campaign script. He'd much be talking about other things, and anger over the shutdown in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads may spur greater Democratic turnout.”

Cuccinelli has voiced concern about lackluster GOP turnout and enthusiasm since last summer when, in an exclusive interview with Newsmax, he said grass-roots conservatives in the Old Dominion appear to be “pretty close” to just staying home.

“In 2009, it was a whole lot more energetic, the whole grass roots, the tea-party effort,” he said. “In some parts of Virginia, the tea party has been not quite staying home, but pretty close to it. They’re just not terribly motivated, or they’re retired or worn out or depressed or something. And that’s a problem. That’s a problem when principle-based voters won’t come out to volunteer.”

National Republicans are monitoring this off-year race closely, with an eye to both the 2014 midterms and 2016 presidential contests. Republicans are counting on Governor Cuccinelli to boost their 2016 nominee in this one-time GOP stronghold that now has gone twice for President Obama. And in the midst of an internal debate over the GOP’s future, the fate of a Tea Party conservative in Virginia will influence how donors and activists approach a slew of GOP primaries next year that pit establishment incumbents against conservative insurgents.

Republican strategists still see a road to victory for Cuccinelli that relies on motivating his base of “principle-based voters” to turn out Nov. 5th. Indeed, there are no other major races on Virginia’s ballot this year, suggesting that low-propensity voters may not bother to show up. That scenario puts pressure on both campaigns to get their most ardent supporters to the polls.

With that in mind, Cuccinelli campaigned with social conservative activist Jim Bob Duggar in Richmond last week, and he stumped Saturday with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee near Liberty University in Lynchburg. He’s scheduled to appear with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., on Oct. 28 in Virginia Beach. And, hoping to stanch the growing support for Libertarian Robert Sarvis, he recently trumpeted an endorsement from Paul’s father, former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas.

He has granted exclusive interviews with conservative media outlets, including Newsmax, and, sharpening his focus on taxes, he released a TV ad Friday that says McAuliffe’s victory would force a family of four to pay $1,700 more in taxes every year.

But the biggest hurdle remains convincing voters not to punish him for the government shutdown – a kitchen table issue that resonates sharply in a state with nearly 300,000 federal workers.

Cuccinelli, who gained national prominence in 2010 when he became the first state attorney general to file a legal challenge to Obamacare, has walked a fine line in responding to an unpopular shutdown designed specifically to defund the health law. He issued early calls for the shutdown to end, but he never directly criticized congressional Republicans for their strategy. He avoided appearing with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, at a recent Richmond gala of social conservatives, but he delivered an address at the gala that served up partisan red meat and, notably, did not criticize Cruz or the shutdown.

Urgent: Do You Support Sen. Ted Cruz's Efforts to Defund Obamacare? Vote Here.

And while he called Obamacare an “affront to our liberty” and a “national embarrassment” during the GOP national address last Saturday, he never once mentioned the shutdown.

GOP experts say Cuccinelli still has a fighting chance in a state that historically has been difficult to poll. They say that Sarvis’ strong numbers will collapse in the final days, with most of his support falling into the GOP column. And they say Cuccinelli will be aided by an eleventh-hour “air war” funded by outside allies like Richard Viguerie, the conservative direct-mail pioneer who recently raised funds to run a 30-minute TV infomercial on his behalf.

Other groups are weighing in to assist the campaign, which has been so cash-strapped recently that it has been unable to answer its phones. “As we get down to the wire here, our field staff (is) especially stretched thin and sometimes things fall through the cracks,” read a recent campaign email. “So if you’ve contacted us about volunteering, but haven’t been put to work yet, please contact us again immediately. We’ll make sure you get engaged ASAP!”

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