Political Hay

Ken Cuccinelli Gets in the Game

Impressive candidate, difficult challenges.

By 6.3.13

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Saturday I dropped by a friend’s home in McLean, Virginia, to watch a bit of half-court basketball and talk a little politics with Ken Cuccinelli, our state Attorney General and Republican candidate for governor. Evidently, the campaign decided to allocate a little time in the candidate’s schedule for some exercise while shoring up the northern Virginia vote, an area that is home turf to the GOP candidate. For the record, he has a pretty good jump shot.

Northern Virginia is an area dominated by federal workers who make up a solid bloc of Democratic voters. The numerous private contractors who make a living working from federal domestic and military programs are center-left voters who, with some skill and finesse, can be cajoled into voting Republican in enough numbers to dampen losses there and allow the Pachyderms to pile up gains in more congenial parts of the Old Dominion.

After Cuccinelli hit the showers, donned his casual clothes, and grabbed some refreshment, he made some remarks regarding the thrust of his campaign and the unique circumstances of running in an off-cycle election. He will follow the lead of many sitting Republican governors and seek both individual and corporate tax cuts as a boost to economic growth. The former is as important as the latter since so many small businesses are basically individual enterprises which, even if incorporated, are basically taxed at individual rates. He wants to offset his tax cuts by eliminating the least economically defensible tax breaks that currently festoon the state tax code. He will limit spending to a figure based on population growth and inflation.

Cuccinelli, despite the diatribes routinely launched against him by Democrats and, here and there, a liberal Republican, is an impressive individual. He is an engineer and, of course, a lawyer. He has won several close races. He is young, robust, and handsome. He is as self-confident as any politician around. Yet, he is hardly a country-club Republican given his government salary and large family. He is personable and approachable.

He also has sense of humor. When asked about the endless claims that he is too conservative or right-wing, he responds: “How can I be so right-wing if I haven’t been audited by the IRS?”

Most importantly, he is smart and is in command of the issues. That is why he has challenged his Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe, to fifteen debates. For the moment only two non-televised debates are scheduled.

Cuccinelli’s track record as Attorney General is pretty solid both on substance and political resonance. His lawsuit challenging Obamacare is popular politically and, while ultimately unsuccessful on procedural grounds, won on many of the substantive issues. Recently, he challenged EPA’s interpretation of the Clean Water Act which sought to use flow as a surrogate for stormwater pollution, a technical approach recommended by the National Research Council of the National Academies, but inconsistent with the law’s command to regulate pollutants and pollution only. He was supported by local county Democratic officials as well as Republicans.

Running statewide in Virginia is no walk in the park. Cuccinelli pointed out that the Democrats have won Virginia in two straight presidential elections for the first time in his life. Moreover, the Democratic advantage in campaign and voter-turnout technology was clearly on display in the last election. Add to this the increasing demographic heft of the suburban counties around Washington, D.C., and you will appreciate why a Republican needs to be on his best game.

Cuccinelli, like his opponent, has so far taken the high road with in his initial television commercials in order to define himself in advance of the inevitable negative attacks coming, probably focused on culture-war issues rather than economics. Moreover, he is spending money on trying to close the technology gap and build his network by doing the necessary amount of fundraising. Regarding this latter point, Cuccinelli says he has always been outspent by his opponents. This election will be no exception given McAuliffe’s reputation as an all-star Democratic fundraiser nationally. (He was the guy who commercialized the Lincoln Bedroom for his friend Bill Clinton.) The trick will be to stay within reach, not necessarily parity, on spending.

Cuccinelli has always focused on grassroots organization, and the Saturday morning basketball gathering demonstrates his commitment to this approach. Earlier that day he spoke to the county precinct captains. He used to be one once upon a time.

On the debit side of the balance sheet is McAuliffe’s money and the demographic drift toward the Democratic Party in northern Virginia. On the credit side, is Cuccinelli’s statewide position and political experience, McAuliffe’s persona as a carpetbagger, a wheeler-dealer, and a lightweight on the issues,

The real wild card is turnout, both its size and complexion. The differential between the 2008 presidential campaign turnout and the 2009 governor’s race was 1.7 million more votes cast in the former election. In November 2012, 70 percent of the vote turned out. If the 2013 race results, again, in only 40 percent of the voters showing up at the polls, that sets up an entirely different political dynamic from the presidential race.

The race may ultimately depend on whether or not Cuccinelli’s organizational skills and intellectual acumen can effectively trump McAuliffe’s money and Democratic information technology. The game is afoot.

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About the Author

G. Tracy Mehan III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.