What happened to Ken Cuccinelli?
As recently as last year, he was arguably the brightest Tea Party star east of the Blue Ridge with a strong set of conservative activist credentials.
But the Cuccinelli who is running for governor this year is suddenly a far more moderated, blander brand of Republican with a focus on economic issues and decidedly safer subjects like “transportation” and “transparency.” Cuccinelli’s retreat from his incendiary past begs the question: Is this really is a cooler, calmer Ken, or is he the same old firebrand hiding behind a facade designed for middle-of-the-road voters who may not have been paying much attention to what the old Cuccinelli was up to in Richmond.
Cuccinelli’s attempts to distance himself from his former focus on issues like abortion and gay marriage has not completely escaped notice. On June 20, the audience at a campaign forum reportedly laughed when Cuccinelli claimed, “My track record is one of defending life and families, but you know, it’s not like I overdo this.”
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics, at the University of Virginia, attributed the laughter to an awareness among voters that these social issues were a priority for Cuccinelli earlier in his career.
“I don’t know what proportion of them laughed, I was not there. But the point is, that’s his image, somebody who spends inordinate time on abortion, gay rights, fill in the blanks, the social issues,” Sabato told TPM.
Sabato said he believes Cuccinelli is trying to “evolve” that image to improve his chances in the governor’s race.
Cuccinelli’s evolution is apparent on his campaign websites from when he first ran for the state senate in 2002 until the current campaign. Hot-button issues like abortion, gay marriage, immigration, and gun rights featured prominently in the past have gradually disappeared from his campaign websites.
From 2003 through his 2009 bid to be attorney general Cuccinelli featured language about gay marriage on his campaign site. In 2009, his site touted Cuccinelli’s belief that “marriage should be protected as a sacred union between one man and one woman.” Over those nine years, he repeatedly referred to his support for anti-gay marriage amendments on both the federal and local levels.
“I led the fight to pass the Marriage Amendment in Northern Virginia. I was one of only a small number of legislators around Virginia that actually went out and actively campaigned on behalf of the Marriage Amendment,” Cuccinelli wrote in 2009.
Cuccinelli announced his intention to run for governor in late 2011. Mentions of gay marriage disappeared from Cuccinelli’s site by 2010, the year he was sworn in as attorney general.
Cuccinelli’s opposition to abortion was featured prominently on his site from 2002 until 2012. In 2002, he described that opposition as something he believed “on the most basic level.”
“Most women who have abortions feel pressured into having them,” Cuccinelli wrote in 2009.
By January of this year, Cuccinelli’s site no longer featured gay marriage or abortion in his digital platform. The “issues” section of Cuccinelli’s web page currently discusses “job creation,” “transportation,” “education,” “taxes and spending,” “government reform,” “energy,” and “healthcare.”
“He’s trying to evolve and change that for this campaign for a very obvious reason. If he is identified in the fall as the social issues candidate for governor, I’m here to tell you right now he’s going to lose,” explained Sabato. “Virginia is a moderate state, it isn’t a liberal state, but it’s no longer the conservative state it once was. Now remember, Virginia now for two presidential elections running has been the median, it’s been the closest to the national average for president of the 50 states. … Virginia is–it’s fairly moderate and Virginians do not want a governor who’s generating controversies for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day.”
According to Sabato, Cuccinelli’s evolution may not be enough to help him win the race. Sabato believes Democrats could derail Cuccinelli’s attempts to reinvent himself. However, he also pointed out the Democratic candidate, Terry McAulliffe has his own problematic past.
“Whether it succeeds depends on the conversation of the other side,” Sabato said of Cuccinelli’s attempt to distance himself from his past positions on social issues. “Whether Terry McAuliffe can focus on that to the exclusion of his own problems. I mean, he’s, you know, he’s not the most attractive Democratic nominee for governor we’ve ever had in Virginia. That’s obvious to everybody.”
Though Cuccinelli’s history of opposition to gay marriage and abortion have generated the most headlines and jabs from his opponents in this campaign, they aren’t the only issues he has removed from his platform. Past versions of Cuccinelli’s campaign site featured his policies on immigration and guns, two other topics that are no longer discussed on his web page.
On all of these issues, Cuccinelli also formerly featured specific policies that he has not discussed in his current race.
In 2002, Cuccinelli wrote that he would seek to require 24-hour waiting periods and sonograms as part of “an informed consent requirement” for all abortions. Last year, he wrote that he “led the fight” to get Virginia to offer pro-life license plates to help “fund crisis-pregnancy centers,” controversial facilities targeting pregnant women that pro-choice activists have long accused of peddling misleading medical information to discourage abortions, “across the Commonwealth.”
In the list of “legislative priorities” posted on his campaign site in 2007, Cuccinelli’s discussion of immigration reform noted his “own family includes a rich heritage of Italian and Irish immigrants.” However, he had harsh words for what he described as “illegal aliens.”
“Legal immigrants have begun their story in the United States with respect for our laws. This is not the case with illegal aliens,” wrote Cuccinelli. “While some of these people come here seeking to improve their lives, they have begun their history with us in an unlawful way. Some have chosen to further violate our laws by stealing identities and trafficking in illegal substances. Some have joined gangs that victimize our citizens.”
Another section on his 2007 list of “legislative priorities” was entitled “Personal Freedom.” Under that heading, Cuccinelli wrote he would support “English First” laws.
“I believe that English should be the official language of the Commonwealth of Virginia. While I am grateful for the diverse people groups that make up our country, I believe that learning the English language is import [sic] for every student in our school system,” Cuccinelli wrote. “Creating an environment where it is important to learn English will benefit all of citizens. At the same time, I believe that private entities should retain the ability to publish materials in the language(s) of their choice.”
On guns, Cuccinelli repeatedly touted his efforts to decrease the background check requirements on gun sales and to expand permissions for carrying concealed weapons from 2002 up until as late as last year. Discussion of firearms was removed from the platform on his campaign site by early 2013. For his 2002 state senate campaign, in conjunction with his policies on guns, Cuccinelli noted he had a “firm commitment to severely penalize those that use guns in crimes” with “common-sense law enforcement” measures including “the abolition of parole.”
The Cuccinelli campaign did not respond when TPM asked if he still advocates requiring 24-hour waiting periods and sonograms for all abortions, having the state facilitate efforts to fund crisis pregnancy centers, making English the official language of Virginia, and abolishing parole.
Though Cuccinelli is no longer discussing many of these issues, it is unclear if he has actually changed his positions. For his part, Sabato said he believes Cuccinelli’s evolution is only superficial and does not involve substantive policy changes.
“I think it’s more a matter of omission than moderating. I think many of his supporters have accepted his wink and a nod,” said Sabato. “They know where he stands. … If I were Cuccinelli that would be my message to them, ‘You know where I stand.’ And they do and the implicit message is, ‘In order to win I need to stop talking about your issues between now and November, but don’t worry, I’ll be there with you starting January.'”