Virginia Race

Ken Cuccinelli’s Last Stand in the Virginia Governor’s Race

Two weeks before Virginia voters choose their next governor, the Republican is lagging in the polls—and struggling with questions about the government shutdown. Ben Jacobs reports.

10.22.13 9:45 AM ET

It seems Ken Cuccinelli is taking on yet another losing cause.

Cuccinelli, the Republican nominee to become Virginia’s next governor, was the first state attorney general to sue the federal government over the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. That effort, ultimately heard by the Supreme Court in NFIB v. Sebelius, failed, although as Cuccinelli pointed out, it did win on “three of the constitutional arguments.” Now Cuccinelli is lagging in the polls against Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe, the former Clinton fundraiser and Democratic National Committee chairman. It’s been months since Cuccinelli has even cracked 40 percent in a poll, let alone 50 percent, and with two weeks left, the odds are not in his favor. Already, Democrat Mark Herring, locked in a tight battle for to succeed Cuccinelli as Virginia’s attorney general, is running attack ads against the Republican candidate, state Sen. Mark Obenshain, that link him with Cuccinelli.

That didn’t deter an ardent crowd of about 100 Republicans who gathered Monday in a campaign victory center in the back of a Northern Virginia strip mall. Attendees crowded into the half-finished space, where the paint didn’t quite go up to the ceiling but the walls were crowded with patriotic posters of the Founding Fathers as well as a Gadsden flag. They rallied to hear not just Cuccinelli but Republican attorneys general from four other states who had ventured into Washington suburbia near Dulles Airport to campaign on his behalf.

The audience was mostly older, white, and well-mannered. Some said they admired Cuccinelli for his work as a public servant and his stance on issues such as education. They were less kind about his opponent. Breen Berger, a substitute teacher from Sterling, derided McAuliffe as “a Clintonite carpetbagger” and said she volunteered for Cuccinelli because she, like the candidate, homeschooled her children. Berger said she was appalled at McAuliffe’s ads attacking Cuccinelli for “his personal opinion” on abortion, among other issues.

Another attendee, Mackie Christensen, quipped that she was so horrified at women voters’ embrace of McAuliffe that she was ready to circulate a petition to “repeal the 19th Amendment,” which gave women the right to vote. Christensen said she thought Democrats were using the same scare tactics that worked for President Obama on social issues and was disgusted at the memory of two activists from NARAL who stood outside a gubernatorial debate dressed as birth control pills to protest Cuccinelli’s position on contraception.

Unsurprisingly, Cuccinelli’s speech barely touched on social issues. Instead, he repeatedly called on Kathleen Sebelius to resign as secretary of health and human services and redoubled his attacks on the Affordable Care Act, which he described as unconstitutional and badly implemented. Cuccinelli also mentioned that he was for canned food drives and against human trafficking, neither of which are considered particularly contentious stands.

The attorney general’s troubles were reemphasized when, at a press availability after his stump speech, he was asked repeatedly about the government shutdown—to the point where his spokesperson wondered aloud whether anyone had “any new questions.” At one time in the campaign, the gubernatorial hopeful would have been relieved to field a question that wasn’t about social issues. Now Cuccinelli sought to avoid talking about the shutdown, instead attacking Washington as “frozen.” After all, he couldn’t risk alienating the loyal Tea Party base he was relying on to turn out and volunteer for him in two weeks. But a significant number of Northern Virginia’s voters are government employees or government contractors who suffered during the shutdown. So the candidate was stuck bobbing and weaving, with no good answers.

Cuccinelli reiterated his belief that his campaign could win through the ground game and noted that he had come from behind in past races. Yet each of the four state attorneys general preceding him made a slightly different pitch for volunteers in a campaign plagued by problems with its field effort. Nick Antich, a cane-wielding anti-abortion rights attendee from Vienna, Virginia, said he had reached out to the campaign about volunteering months ago and never heard back. Antich said he wasn’t volunteering now but would at least mention and urge a Cuccinelli vote if it came up in conversation. The level of organization seemed to be summed up by a white board in the campaign office emphasizing that only 17 days remained in the race—a milestone that had been reached 48 hours earlier.

All those factors combine to put Cuccinelli behind the eight ball in a state that is steadily turning more Democratic. With the exception of Lyndon Johnson in 1964, no Democratic presidential candidate had won the state between Harry Truman in 1948 and Obama in 2008. Obama won Virginia again in 2012, due in part to the state’s changing demographics, as traditional Republican bastions in Northern Virginia grow steadily more diverse and Democratic.

Still, the attorney general can’t be counted out completely. After all, his attempt to thwart Obamacare was once considered totally hopeless by most legal scholars and ended up winning more arguments than it didn’t—just not ultimately the one that mattered. With a fervent base, the state’s lingering tendency to tilt slightly Republican in off years, and a ground game that may yet live up to the hype, Cuccinelli could make the race close. But in elections as in life, close doesn’t cut it.