Why Cuccinelli Lost: Hard-Right Conservatism Became A Liability In Virginia

Virginia Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli, gestures as he delivers his acceptance speech for the nomination as the Republican candidate for Governor of Virginia at the Virginia Republican convention in Richmond, Va.,... Virginia Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli, gestures as he delivers his acceptance speech for the nomination as the Republican candidate for Governor of Virginia at the Virginia Republican convention in Richmond, Va., Saturday, May 18, 2013. MORE LESS
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Updated: 10:51 p.m. ET

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) lost the Virginia governor’s race Tuesday evening.

“Despite being outspent by an unprecedented $15 million, this race came down to the wire because of Obamacare,” Cuccinelli said in his concession speech in Richmond. “We said this race was a referendum on Obamacare, and although I lost tonight, you sent a message to the president of the United States that you believe that Obamacare is a failure and that you want to be in charge of your health care, not the government.”

But in the end, Cuccinelli’s hard-right conservatism — which he flaunted throughout the campaign — seems to have been his undoing.

Cuccinelli’s loss may come as a lesson that simply firing up the base is not a surefire way to get elected.

Republicans in the state who watched the Virginia gubernatorial race closely say that the problem wasn’t that Terry McAuliffe (D) was a perfect candidate — far from it, he’d faced ethical questions for years before running in Virginia — or that Cuccinelli failed to properly articulate his conservatism. Quite the opposite actually. Rather it was that Cuccinelli was too good at making his staunch conservative views clear which gave McAuliffe an opening and alienated crucial voting groups.

“He’s been effectively characterized as some sort of right-wing fundamentalist pastor who if you don’t agree with his reading of the Bible you go to hell,” said Michael W. Thompson, who has been active in the Virginia Republican Party and serves as the current president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy.

Cuccinelli’s hard-right approach contrasts with recommendations Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus laid out for his party in an “autopsy report” released in late December of last year. That memo urged Republicans running for office to prioritize winning over women and Hispanic voters, stay away from divisive stances that could come off as callous, and emphasize economic growth rather than social issues.

One demographic where Cuccinelli clearly lost was among women voters. Even before the race was called polls showed Cuccinelli as much as 24 points behind McAuliffe. Though Priebus’s memo stressed the importance “of developing a forward-leaning vision for voting Republican that appeals to women,” any attempt at appeal to women voters fell flat with Cuccinelli’s campaign, leaving an opening for pro-choice groups to swoop in.

While stumping for McAuliffe, Planned Parenthood Action Fund president Cecile Richards first alluded to Cuccinelli’s hand in implementing new, strict, abortion clinic regulations before saying that the attorney general has “the most extreme” agenda of any attorney general on women’s rights.

“McAuliffe is a strong supporter of women’s rights and women’s healthcare, while Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli has been trying to get rid of Planned Parenthood,” Richards said. “The record of Ken Cuccinelli is the most extreme of any attorney general I can think of in the country.”

“Ken Cuccinelli drove women voters away by being the human embodiment of the Republican War on Women,” EMILY’s List spokeswoman Marcy Stech said. “He’s championed the very worst of his party’s backwards agenda – only he goes so far as to say out loud what the other Republicans try to just think quietly. There was a historic gender gap in 2012 because of precisely this agenda – and the Virginia governor’s race looks like it could break even those records.”

Cuccinelli’s problem wasn’t just winning over women voters. McAuliffe’s campaign successfully tied Cuccinelli to tea party conservatives like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and painted him as an ultra conservative.

“They have portrayed him as someone who doesn’t care about women,” J. Kenneth Klinge, the former executive director of the Virginia Republican Party, said of the McAuliffe campaign’s attacks at Cuccinelli on issues relating to abortion and birth control.

Thompson, who served on Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s (R) transition team on government, told TPM that Cuccinelli wasn’t able to get most Virginia Republicans to understand that he was a social conservative but may not necessarily govern as one. “And for whatever reason, I think a number of people think those issues are driving the bus. I don’t think they are with Ken but I think the other side has done an effective job of presenting him that way.”

Through much of the race Cuccinelli chose to appeal to tea partiers and Christian conservatives in the state by stressing his hard-right stances on limited government, abortion, gay rights, gun control and opposition to raising taxes. And tea party favorites like Cruz, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), Paul’s father, former Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), Dr. Ben Carson and Christian conservative darling Mike Duggar all campaigned for Cuccinelli alongside more mainstream candidates like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

Former Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore (R), who ran unsuccessfully against now-Sen. Time Kaine (D-VA) in the state’s gubernatorial race, said Cuccinelli should have tried to focus more on the economy.

“The way you deflect social attacks is to focus on the economy and jobs and things that are going on in Washington,” Kilgore told TPM.

But even that strategy didn’t help the attorney general, who suffered on the coattails of congressional Republicans who bore the brunt of public blame the federal government shutdown.

“The shutdown did not help Ken Cuccinelli in that time period,” Kilgore said. “I mean it sort of put this race in limbo for those two weeks while the whole country was looking at Washington and believing they couldn’t get anything right and they mostly blamed the Republicans for it.”

The McAuliffe campaign quickly and eagerly used the shutdown against Cuccinelli, flooding advertising space with negative spots linking the attorney general to Republicans at the center of the shutdown like Cruz and portraying Cuccinelli as a conservative extremist on both social and economic issues. Cuccinelli tried to distance himself from Cruz in response but by then the damage was done.

McAuliffe also dominated fundraising for most of the race. From Oct. 1 to Oct. 23 alone he raised $8.1 million while Cuccinelli raised $2.9 million, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. The majority of outside spending in the race went toward McAuliffe as well. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s (I) Independence USA PAC spent $1,568,550 in support of McAuliffe and Planned Parenthood Action Fund, which spent $462,215 in opposition to Cuccinelli.

Still, observers are cautious about overly broad takeaways from the race. After all, it’s just one gubernatorial race in one state that was more sensitive to politics of the shutdown than most. Cuccinelli’s loss may be as much of a fluke as it is a teaching moment. Cuccinelli, after all, certainly suffered from the candidacy of Libertarian Robert Sarvis, who siphoned off up to 10 percent of the vote in certain polls at the end of Election Day.

In the last few days of the race, Cuccinelli hoped that Virginia voters’ attention had moved away from the shutdown and toward Obamacare thanks to the less-than-perfect rollout of the healthcare exchange website. Republicans suggested that Cuccinelli’s campaign was still salvageable if he relentlessly hammered McAuliffe on Obamacare. In a conference call with reporters Cuccinelli said if he could go back he would have focused more on Obamacare throughout the campaign.

“I think the only major difference would have been that, and of course as you know we’re in Virginia on the other side of the Potomac so a lot of other people are personally involved in the federal government and [the government shutdown] just drew attention away from the race more than anything,” Cuccinelli said. “Obamacare began Oct. 1 effectively, I was the first person in the country to fight it and that didn’t get as much attention in the first half of the month as it’s gotten in the second half of the month.”

Correction: This story, which was published after the race was called for McAuliffe but before Cuccinelli conceded, originally said that Cuccinelli conceded. We regret the error.

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