Ken Cuccinelli’s Incredibly Lackluster Campaign

He’s underfunded, underfavored, and uncool. And Ken Cuccinelli isn’t getting any help from Ted Cruz either.

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Ken Cuccinelli is running scared. At a Saturday night gala of the Family Foundation, Cuccinelli avoided taking the stage together with the driving force of the government shutdown, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). Cuccinelli also dodged joint photo op with Texas’s junior senator and let it be known that he asked Cruz to compromise on the budget stalemate. Virginia’s Republican gubernatorial candidate wants to be liked enough by the furloughed federal employees who live in northern Virginia’s suburbs, but he also wants to associate himself with Cruz, but not too much. That kind of dexterity requires tremendous personal and political talent, which Cuccinelli lacks.

And if a government shutdown isn’t enough to complicate Cuccinelli’s lackluster campaign, there are always the polls and Robert Sarvis, the Libertarian gubernatorial nominee. The latest numbers show Cuccinelli trailing Democrat Terry McAuliffe by about 5 points, with Sarvis running 3rd, and garnering at least 10 percent of the vote.

Third-party candidates are supposed to be asterisks or jokes, but Sarvis is neither, and that’s not good news for Cuccinelli. Sarvis, a software engineer and lawyer, is getting most of his support from white voters, men, and middle-aged Virginians. In other words, Sarvis is making a real dent among Cuccinelli’s prime voting base.

The fact that Sarvis is also doing particularly well among voters under 30 further highlights the gap between the Republican Party and younger Americans. There seems to be little that Cuccinelli can do about any of this. Underfunded, underfavored, and uncool is not where any politician wants to be. But that is exactly where Cuccinelli is right now.

So how did Cuccinelli, who is Virginia’s elected incumbent attorney general, blow his early 10-point lead over McAuliffe, an oleaginous, crony-capitalist, who made his millions off the taxpayer and the misery of others? The short answer is that Cuccinelli is retro about the things that voters who are either skeptical or hostile toward government intrusion and overreach feel strongly about—like issues of personal autonomy.

Just a few years ago, as Virginia’s AG, Cuccinelli was at forefront of the fight against Obamacare, winning a short-lived victory in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, which was then overturned on appeal. Cuccinelli’s challenge to the president should have won him the undivided loyalty of conservative voters.

Alas for Cuccinelli, it didn’t. He pushes the social hot buttons that make libertarian voters cringe and suburbanites say “no thank you,” and that’s where Sarvis comes in.

Sarvis is no liberal, as he backed George W. Bush over Al Gore in 2000 and John McCain over Barack Obama in 2008. But, Sarvis also favors recognizing same-sex marriage, and compares Virginia’s ban to the state’s former and unconstitutional “Racial Integrity Act of 1924,” which prohibited inter-racial marriage.

Given that Sarvis’s wife is African-American, and Sarvis himself is part Asian, Sarvis’s stance carries additional weight. Just think of Bill de Blasio, New York City’s Democratic mayoral nominee. Voters are not necessarily with him on the issues, but they find his mutiracial household appealing. And let’s be honest, Dante’s afro deserves props.

Getting back to Sarvis, he also opposes imprisonment for a “mere marijuana offense” and has stated that “I want to return to the idea that you are free to run your life.” For libertarian-minded Republicans and independents, Sarvis is a viable alternative to Cuccinelli, who has a tough time reconciling his traditionalism with the world around him, and for good-government-minded independents, Sarvis also presents a realistic option to the government-as-bazaar approach offered by the Macker.

Cuccinelli’s plight and Sarvis’s strengths crystalize the GOP’s problems, as the party seeks to move past Mitt Romney’s loss. Last March the Republican National Committee released a report (PDF) that noted the disfavor in which younger voters hold Republicans. According to the report, “a post-election survey of voters ages 18-29 in the battleground states of Virginia, Ohio, Florida, and Colorado, found that Republicans have an almost 1:2 favorable/unfavorable rating. Democrats have an almost 2:1 favorable rating.”

A subsequent report (PDF) issued in June by the College Republican National Committee, “Grand Old Party for a Brand New Generation,” reached a similar conclusion: “Asked which words least described the GOP, respondents gravitated toward ‘open-minded’ (35%), ‘tolerant’ (25%), ‘caring’ (22%), and ‘cooperative’ (21%).” It would seem as though Cuccinelli never bothered to look at either report, or if he had, he was ignoring both of them.

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To his credit, Cuccinelli is connecting with working-class voters, but that is not enough to win, given the fact that Virginia’s demographics are rapidly changing. The reality is that Virginia’s professional and minority population surged between 2000 and 2010, while its diversity “skyrocketed,” according to the National Journal.

In a broader context, in both 2008 and 2012, college graduates were more than half of Virginia’s electorate, and each time they voted for Barack Obama. By contrast, a majority of the 2012 national electorate did not hold a B.A.

Thus, to win in Virginia, Cuccinelli must connect with voters outside his comfort zone, and right now that is not happening. As both Messrs. McCain and Romney learned the hard way, by itself, finishing first among the white working class is not enough to ensure victory. Politics is a coalitions game, and Cuccinelli appears more focused on ginning up his base than on building upon it.

Although Cuccinelli avoided a public appearance with Cruz, Cuccinelli still managed to win Cruz’s praise: “Ken is smart, he’s principled, and he’s fearless.” With an August Quinnipiac Poll showing that Hillary Clinton would crush Cruz by almost 20 points in Virginia, Cruz’s verbal embrace of Cuccinelli stands to harm more than help. Still, having alienated the center, and with Sarvis surging, Cuccinelli must be prepared to take what he can get.