Cuccinelli Flameout

Ken Cuccinelli Making Bad Candidate History in Virginia

Ken Cuccinelli is one of the worst gubernatorial candidates in recent Republican history.

Ken Cuccinelli is losing, but his supporters don’t seem to know it. At least not yet. On Monday, around 200 people squeezed into a small banquet hall—located in his old state senate district—to kick off the last leg of the attorney general’s gubernatorial campaign. The crowd of supporters and former constituents was eager to see Cuccinelli, and his partner for the afternoon, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. “I’ve known Ken for eleven years,” explained Audrey Dutton, a local Republican activist, “He is a man of his word and I trust him completely as a political figure.”

Neither Paul nor Cuccinelli offered anything new in their rhetoric—and the former seemed to be establishing his brand more than supporting his ally—but Cuccinelli seemed like he was having fun. He railed against Obamacare, emphasized the near-losses of his previous campaigns—“What do you call a state senate candidate who wins by a small margin? A senator!”—told jokes about his opponent, Terry McAuliffe, and used playful voices to encourage supporters to make phone calls or go door-to-door. Audience members loved it, and eventually, a game of call and response developed between Cuccinelli and the crowd. “Government is the problem,” Cuccinelli said, with the audience finishing the quote, “not the solution”

But again, Cuccinelli is losing. Badly. According to the latest survey from ABC News and the Washington Post, he’s trailing McAuliffe by twelve points, 51 percent to 39 percent. He’s losing women by 24 points, barely winning men, and sinking in almost every region of the state, from the Richmond metropolitan area and its old Virginia suburbs, to the military hub of Hampton Roads, to the fast-growing communities of Northern Virginia. The only place where Cuccinelli has any sort of an advantage is in the southwest of the state, where Democrats have always struggled.

Overall, however, Cuccinelli is poised to lose by a larger margin than any Republican gubernatorial candidate since 1985, and his running mate—lieutenant governor candidate E.W. Jackson—is on path for a more explosive crash. Mark Obenshain, the GOP pick for attorney general, is the only one of these men who might survive election night with a political career, but even that’s in doubt—the Post has Obenshain behind his Democratic opponent, Mark Herring, by 3 points.

Ideological extremism has a place in Cuccinelli’s abrupt collapse (his strident opposition to abortion has won him few favors in mainstream Virginia politics), as does the government shutdown and the attorney general’s failed attempt to distance himself from the Tea Party he championed just a few years ago. But the electoral salience of all of this has everything to do with the demographic changes that transformed the commonwealth in the previous two presidential elections, and—at the moment—hang over the future of the entire Republican Party, not just the one in Virginia.

You could see this is in the composition of the crowd that filled Cuccinelli’s event, and the larger one (of nearly 800 people) that filled the gym of a Herndon elementary school later that evening. As an African American reporter, I was one of the few flecks of color at Cuccinelli’s rally. Overwhelmingly, it was a crowd of older whites—the people who, four years earlier, formed the backbone of Bob McDonnell’s successful run for the governorship. If this year’s electorate looked like the one in 2009, Cuccinelli might be on his way to victory, even with his mistakes and missteps.

But the McAuliffe campaign has done an excellent job of mobilizing the Obama coalition of 2008 and 2012. His event—headlined by Senator Mark Warner and former President Bill Clinton—looked like the commonwealth of the 21st century. In addition to older and younger whites, there were African American, Asian American and Latino voters, and plenty of students. Women, in particular, dominated the crowd, and they were clear about their reasons for opposing Cuccinelli (active support for McAuliffe was more rare), “I don’t know a lot about McAuliffe,” said Mickey, a long-time resident of the area who doesn’t identify with either party, “but I do know a lot about Cuccinelli, and I don’t want him to win.”

It’s a bit shocking to see—given his many weaknesses as a candidate—but McAuliffe is on track to win a commanding victory in an off-year election while a member of his party is in the White House, breaking a pattern that goes back to 1977. His success will likely carry down the ticket, giving Democrats their first statewide sweep in thirty years.

Few people—if anyone—predicted this outcome, but here it is. Terry McAuliffe is about to become governor of Virginia, while Ken Cuccinelli will soon leave politics as one of the least successful gubernatorial candidates in recent Republican history. And as for the Virginia GOP as an institution? Be prepared for an open civil war, as the establishment tries to win its party back from an extreme, uncompromising base.

It’s not clear what lessons the national parties can draw from this, but my hope is that moderate Virginia Republicans find some success. If at least one chunk of the GOP can stop the Tea Party from crashing its brand into the sea, then—maybe—it’s possible for others to do the same and help return Republican Party sanity, if not competence.