Why Ken Cuccinelli Is the Anti-Chris Christie

Ken Cuccinelli, the GOP’s floundering gubernational candidate in Virginia, would be wise to take a page of out of Chris Christie’s blue-state playbook. But it might be too late, writes Lloyd Green.

08.26.13 5:15 PM ET

Chris Christie and Ken Cuccinelli are both New Jersey natives, Republicans, and their party’s gubernatorial nominee in their respective states.

Beyond that, they share little else.

Christie, the governor of New Jersey, is a moderate conservative cruising to reelection; Cuccinelli, currently the attorney general of Virginia, is the darling of the GOP base and not much more. Christie has a double-digit lead over his Democratic challenger, State Senator Barbara Buono; Cuccinelli is down by about five points to former Democratic National Committee Chair, Clinton crony, and alleged grifter Terry McAuliffe, according to the latest pair of polls.

Christie’s strength in the reliably blue Garden State and Cuccinelli’s weakness in the Old Dominion are about persona, policy, and political reality. Christie knows that he’s the governor of a state that has consistently gone for Democratic presidential candidates over the last two decades. On the other hand, Cuccinelli fantasizes that Virginia voted for John McCain and Mitt Romney, and that ethnic-slurring George Allen made it to the Senate.

But Cuccinelli’s problems go deeper than that. Right now, he is underperforming even Romney’s showing in Virginia. Romney lost the state, but still managed to win its upscale voters and white women—Cuccinelli is losing both blocs to McAuliffe.

Cuccinelli has undoubtedly been harmed by an ethics and gift scandal that has ensnared the sitting and term-limited Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, the reported subject of a federal grand jury probe. Still, it’s not just about McDonnell’s allegedly sticky fingers. Cuccinelli, too, suffers from ethical myopia (or dulled political judgment), even if he has been formally cleared of possible ethics violations.

Specifically, Cuccinelli owned stock in Star Scientific, the very same company whose chief, Jonnie Williams, showered both McDonnell and Cuccinelli with gifts—gifts that Cuccinelli has refused to return in kind or in cash. In all, only $18,000 or so is involved, and yet Cuccinelli cannot find it in himself to cut a check. Not surprisingly, McAuliffe hammers away on this sore point, leaving Cuccinelli trailing and the story festering.

More worrisome for Republicans is Cuccinelli’s incapability of eliding over hot-button social issues. As Virginia’s outgoing Republican Lt. Governor Bill Bolling sees it, Cuccinelli is a “rigid ideologue who thrives on conflict and confrontation and tends to be drawn to the more controversial and divisive issues of the day.”

Christie, meanwhile, is tradition-minded but not mired in debates over ultrasound wands or sodomy. He flatly stated that sexual orientation is a matter of biological predisposition. And in contrast to four years ago when he beat the since disgraced Jon Corzine, Christie currently leads among women. For Christie, the discussion is about jobs and taxes, the stuff most people think about when they consider politics and government. He hasn’t dabbled with birtherism, in contrast to Cuccinelli.

Clearly, Christie, a former federal prosecutor, has learned a lesson or two while in office. After being caught using government helicopters to fly to his son’s little league baseball games, Christie immediately reimbursed the state. Case closed. End of story.

Christie is of the modern world; Cuccinelli less so. For Republicans in Virginia and nationally, that is a problem. As one Republican White House veteran and Virginian put it, “the race is between a crook and a kook, and I expect the crook to win.”

Fittingly, McAuliffe and his former company, Green Tech Automotive, are infused with all the elements of Clintonian modernity, globalization, and crony capitalism that one could imagine. McAuliffe is embroiled in allegations over a possible visa-for-sale scheme, involving Chinese financing for Green Tech.

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The swirling scandal now includes an S.E.C. investigation, charges surrounding a meeting with Vice President Joe Biden, and accusations of improperly applied pressure targeting the Department of Homeland Security.  McAuliffe’s tale also has its very own Clinton family connection—Tony Rodham, Hillary’s brother, who was a Green Tech money guy.

Sadly for Cuccinelli, while voters may say “ugh” about “the Macker,” they have yet to walk away from him. Much as Cuccinelli may try to talk about taxes and roads, not enough voters are buying. A well-funded McAuliffe ad blitz is cementing an image of Virginia’s attorney general as fixated on social issues.

Cuccinelli’s struggle is compounded by the fact that Virginia’s demographics dramatically shifted, making it emblematic of the New South. Indeed, nothing tells the story better than a recent Quinnipiac Poll showing Hillary with comfortable leads over Christie and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in a hypothetical 2016 presidential matchup. She polls ahead of Christie by nine, and crushes Cruz by almost 20 points.

Actually, this is huge. No Republican since Warren G. Harding in 1920 has won the White House without also winning Virginia. More recently, Barack Obama’s margins of victory in Virginia were in sync with his numbers nationally. Virginia has graduated to bellwether status.

Likewise, a Cuccinelli loss would also be laden with historic significance.  It would be the first time since 1965 that Virginians voted for a governor who was a member of the same party as the sitting president.

The times are changing, and the question for Cuccinelli and the Republicans is whether they can change with them. The GOP cannot continue to behave as if the whole country were a Republican primary—not if it endeavors to recapture the presidency.

In 2012, non-married voters were two fifths of the electorate, up from a third in 2008; with single women comprising almost a quarter of all voters, and closely rivaling white Evangelicals in size. Per the Census Bureau, the electorate grows continually less white between elections, dropping at a rate of about two points every four years. Meanwhile, religious “nones” and “others” are now a fifth of those who go to the polls.

Going forward, the Republican Party must adapt if it is to remain competitive. In New Jersey, Christie has gotten the message, and is being rewarded with likely reelection and front-runner status for the 2016 GOP nomination. Will the rest of the Party internalize these developments? Looking at Virginia, the jury is still out.