‘Last Supper’ Flap Dredges Up Ken Cuccinelli’s Demons

An anti-Semitic joke at at campaign rally may keep voters’ minds on the Virginia GOP’s history of offensive remarks—and may end Cuccinelli’s hope for a last-minute comeback in the gubernatorial race.

09.18.13 4:32 PM ET

Once again, wordplay and ethnicity wounded an office-seeking Virginia Republican. On Tuesday John Whitbeck, Virginia’s 10th Congressional District Republican Committee chair, made the news as he warmed up a Constitution Day rally at which Ken Cuccinelli was the featured speaker by telling a joke that ran counter to the spirit of Vatican II, to say the least, and again brought into focus the Virginia GOP’s dual problems with modernity and electability.

Whitbeck got the crowd going by reciting a tale about how the head of the Jewish religion presented the pope with a bill for the Last Supper. Apparently, there’s nothing like the tropes of deicide and frugality to get voters to the polls. Or not.

Within hours, the Twitterverse lit up like an ecumenical Christmas tree, the Virginia Democratic Party circulated a video of Whitbeck’s attempt at a few yuks, and the Cuccinelli campaign sought to put some distance between Whitbeck and its candidate, who wasn’t yet on the stage.

Virginians had seen this movie before. Sort of. 

Back in 2006, then–U.S. senator George Allen (R-VA) hurled the North African pejorative “macaca” at his opponent’s video tracker, S.R. Sidarth, an Indian-American. Allen went on to lose his reelection bid by less than 1 percent to Jim Webb (D-VA), Ronald Reagan’s secretary of the Navy, an Annapolis graduate, and a Vietnam combat veteran. Politics, like football, is a game of inches, where a single turnover can cost you the game.

Ironically, the California-born and -raised, Confederate-flag-pin-wearing Allen was given a lesson of his own in etymology, religion, and geography. It turned out that Allen’s mother, Etty, was a Tunisian-born Jew and former French citizen, and that “macaca” was Portuguese for monkey.

At the moment, the latest passel of polls shows Cuccinelli trailing his Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe, by 5 points, with a persistent gap among women and upscale voters. On the fundraising level, McAuliffe leads Cuccinelli by more than $2 million in both money raised and cash on hand, with the lion’s share of Cuccinelli’s donations coming in the form of $3.6 million in in-kind contributions by the Republican Governors Association. With less than two months left until the election, let’s call it third and long for Ken.

As a practical matter, Whitbeck’s remarks will personally offend only a sliver of the electorate, with Jews making up only 3 percent of Virginia’s voters in 2012, according to exit polls. More broadly, though, Whitbeck’s attempt at humor will likely remind folks about things that Cuccinelli & Co. wish people would just forget, things like Cuccinelli’s own brushes with birth, ethnicity, and nationality.

In a 2010 interview, Cuccinelli raised the possibility of tying Virginia’s challenge to Obamacare to the president having been born in Kenya and thus ineligible for office—despite that Obama’s mother was American born, raised in Kansas, and a descendant of New England abolitionists. As Cuccinelli put it, “I mean, someone is going to have to come forward with nailed-down testimony that he was born in place B, wherever that is. You know, the speculation is Kenya. And that doesn't seem beyond the realm of possibility.”

To his credit, Cuccinelli quickly disavowed his comments about Obama and chalked them up to a discussion of the hypothetical. Cuccinelli explained, “I absolutely believe that President Obama was born in the United States. I don't buy into the claims that he wasn't.”  

To their credit, the Cuccinelli campaign sought to quickly douse the fire of Whitebeck’s Last Supper joke. Cuccinelli campaign strategist Chris LaCivita criticized the comment, saying, “It’s wholly inappropriate and not connected to the campaign. And it’s not reflective of Ken Cuccinelli.” For good measure, LaCivita added, “I don’t even know who the guy is.”

Dissociation is one thing, but denial is another—especially when it is false, especially when the guy you claimed not to know is the guy who actually nominated your guy for governor, and especially when the guy you claimed not to know previously emceed a campaign event for your guy.

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For Cuccinelli, all this is happening at a moment when he thought he had finally found his mojo. Just after a recent staff shake-up, Cuccinelli won the coveted endorsement of the Northern Virginia Technology Council’s PAC, overcoming objections from vocal McAuliffe supporters. As The Washington Post described it, “as endorsements go, the NVTC’s is an important one in Northern Virginia,” insofar as the NVTC represents about 1,000 businesses and organizations and its membership runs the gamut from businesses to universities to government agencies.

Alas for Cuccinelli, as his brush with modernity now appears to be short-lived. For the next 24 hours, the candidate will likely be left to clean up a mess that was not of his own making—for once.

Back in the spring, the race appeared winnable for Cuccinelli, as polls showed him leading by as many as 10 points. Not anymore.

Since then Cuccinelli has been saddled with defending his own record on social issues and ethics and with a running mate for lieutenant governor, the Rev. E.W. Jackson, who makes Cuccinelli look, well, moderate. Back in May, Cuccinelli announced that he was “just not going to defend” Jackson’s “statements at every turn.” Now, with time running out, Cuccinelli has embraced the once unembraceable.

At a recent rally, Cuccinelli proclaimed, “It’s great to be here with the whole ticket. As E.W. said, we’re running together. We’re running hard.” 

Cuccinelli may yet pull an upset. McAuliffe has his own problems with scandals and high unfavorables. Only 24 percent of Virginians view McAuliffe favorably, while 39 percent look at him otherwise.

Yet, the reality is that Cuccinelli lags, and that Virginia is now an electoral bellwether. It has gone Democratic in the last two presidential elections by the national average and last elected a nonincumbent Republican to the Senate in 2000. It would do the New Jersey–born Cuccinelli well to remember that Virginia is very much part of the 21st century.