Republicans in search of political momentum heading into Congressional races next year are keeping a close eye on Virginia’s gubernatorial campaign. But for a better barometer of where the conservative brand stands with voters, they also should be keeping tabs on the state’s race for attorney general.
That’s because the fight features two lawmakers from the voter-rich Northern Virginia suburbs that helped Democrats last year pick up the state’s 13 electoral votes for the first time in 44 years. And, perhaps more important to the future of the GOP, the campaign features one of the staunchest, smartest and straightforward conservatives The Old Dominion has to offer: state Sen. Ken Cuccinelli.
For Virginia conservatives, Cuccinelli, a lawyer, husband, pro-life Christian and father of six, is the total package.
“When you have been around as long as I have you can tell the real deal from the fraudulent and Cuccinelli is the real deal,” said Craig Shirley, president of Shirley and Banister Public Affairs in Alexandria, Va. and author of “Reagain’s Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started it All.” “A lot of people who profess to be conservatives or Reaganites don’t really get it, and Cuccinelli does.”
The first Republican from Northern Virginia on the party’s ticket since 1993, Cuccinelli rounds out a strong GOP lineup that includes former Attorney General Bob McDonnell, the gubernatorial candidate, and Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who is seeking re-election.
McDonnell, who spent part of his childhood in Fairfax County, called Cuccinelli “a conservative who knows how to win tough elections.”
“Ken is a proven vote getter in Northern Virginia, where our party needs to do better,” he said. “That’s extremely helpful for our chances in November.”
Shaun Kenney, former spokesman for the Republican party of Virginia and popular conservative blogger, took it step further by saying that Cuccinelli, also known as "Cooch," offers something the rest of the Republican ticket lacks. “McDonnell and Bolling are good Republicans. They are good conservatives, but they are not great conservatives like Ken Cuccinelli,” Kenney said.
For six years, Cuccinelli has served as state Senator in the 37th district sandwiched in western Fairfax County between the Democrat-trending Beltway to the east and the more Republican-friendly areas to the west. He won the seat in a special election in 2002 and again a year later. He squeaked out another win in 2007 – despite the area’s changing demographics, President Bush’s dismal poll numbers and being outspent by his Democratic challenger.
Through the battles Cuccinelli has emerged a darling of social and religious conservatives who are enthusiastic about his supporting legislation to substantially curb abortion access, crack down on illegal immigrants, defend property rights and fight what he has described as "the homosexual agenda.”
Shirley said Cuccinelli also should win kudos for successfully calling on Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine last month to hold a special session to deal with a recent U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that said the government must make scientists who prepare lab reports in drunken-driving and drug cases available for cross-examination by defense lawyers. Cuccinelli warned the decision left prosectors in legal limbo and jeopardized prosecutions already in the pipeline. Kaine later agreed. “He was ahead of everyone else on the that issue,” Shirley said.
What makes Cuccinelli’s electoral success so impressive is the 37th district has become a political graveyard for Republicans. Last year, voters there backed Obama and former Gov. Mark Warner in his bid for the U.S. Senate. It favored Jim Webb over George Allen in the 2006 senatorial race. And a year earlier, it opposed Republicans running for top statewide office – including McDonnell and Bolling.
Supporters say his success comes from his unapologetic refusal to buck conservative tenets. For example, in 2007, when Democrats said he is too extreme because of his support for gun-rights and opposition to taxes, abortion and gay marriage, he embraced it. But other Republicans ran the other way and lost, leaving Cuccinelli as the GOP’s last remaining state Senator from the region.
“The policy proposals I put forward apply to the real world, but they all come with the conservative philosophy,” he said. “I can explain every position I got. People know where I stand. Whether people agree with me, or don’t, I have always been a straight shooter. They appreciate that, unlike a lot people, I am consistent across the board and they know that. For a lot of people that is refreshing.”
This approach has helped him open an 11-point lead in his race against Delegate Stephen Shannon, also of Fairfax County, according to a recent SurveyUSA poll.
The poll comes after local elections this year that also seem to bode well for the GOP as it looks to regain footing in the greater Washington metropolitan region and among swing voters nationally.
In January, Republicans came within 16 votes of grabbing the Alexandria seat of former state Delegate Brian Moran who left the post in his failed pursuit of the Democratic nomination for governor. (Two months earlier, Obama had carried the same district with 75 percent of the vote.) In February, Republicans came within a little more than a percentage point of winning the chairmanship of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. Then in March a Republican won the county board’s Braddock District seat for the first time in a decade.
“Virginia is basically conservative,” Cuccinelli said. “The exception to that is Northern Virginia, which is not conservative or liberal, but has been hostile to Republicans in recent years. But it is not this year. Northern Virginia looks a lot different in 2009 than in 2007 and that is even before we get to the November election.”
He believes part of the impetus for change is the “buyer’s remorse” some voters are having after witnessing President Obama’s first eight months in office. “Clearly that plays a big role. I think people are getting something they didn’t bargain for and are reacting very strong to it," he said.
The SurveyUSA poll drove home the point by showing that 13 percent of Obama voters plan to cross over to support Cuccinelli, while 8 percent of McCain supporters plan to cross over to support Shannon.
The bottom line is Cuccinelli’s political profile may have been tailor made for a statewide campaign – he is a known commodity in Northern Virginia, holds a record that appeals to the more conservative parts of the state and is benefiting from having a Democrat in The White House.
“I hold my own in NOVA and I believe I go with issue advantages to the rest of the state,” he said. “It’s a good combination and obviously Northern Virginia is the 800-pound gorilla that has been a tough nut to crack in recent years.”
And a win this year could propel him onto the national stage, where the GOP is hungry for a conservative figure to rally around.
“I hope he is thinking about that,” Shirley said. "He definitely would be among the rising stars in the Republican party.”
But first things first, Shirley says Cuccinelli is focused on the coming weeks where elections in Virginia and New Jersey will take center stage in national politics and Democrats will poor money and energy into wooing voters.
President Obama has already stumped with Creigh Deeds, the Democratic candidate for governor, and will likely continue to do so for the entire Democratic ticket. Meanwhile, Shannon, who began the race $900,000 ahead of him, has posted an attack ad on his website questioning why Cuccinelli has not denounced a Republican candidate for the statehouse who encouraged her supporters to fight Obama’s policy by saying, "We have a chance to fight this battle at the ballot box before we have to resort to the bullet box.”
Cuccinelli called the ad was a “desperate” attempt to move the campaign away from real issues and tie him to someone he has never campaign for. He also said it is a sign of what’s likely to come because Democrats realize what is at stake.
“I am going to have a dogfight on my hands come September and October," he said. “If we roll through in state that Obama won and took to Democrats for first time in 44 years and we come back and sweep it, that will give Blue Dog Democrats a pause in Congress,” Cuccinelli said. “They will not want to go along with their liberal cohorts. Second of all Republican candidates in 2010 will get a jump start out of Virginia.”
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