Even if he was in the right, to many observers of Virginia politics Ken Cuccinelli’s lawsuit against Obamacare had the whiff of a publicity stunt. It wasn’t so much that his case was spurious (a district court upheld its legitimacy, though he wasn’t able to take his case to the Supreme Court), but that it was one more link in a chain of quixotic, politically-charged crusades.
Two incidents in particular occurred in the spring of 2010, around the same time he filed the Obamacare lawsuit. The first was an request for years’ worth of documents and correspondence from UVA relating to Michael Mann, the climate scientist of “climategate” fame, after he had already been cleared of wrongdoing. An Albemarle County judge threw it out; Cuccinelli appealed only to get the same result from the Virginia Supreme Court. (In an interesting twist, the county judge’s wife had been employed by UVA’s environmental sciences department, the same one Michael Mann taught in, so the appeal was probably justified.) The second was his letter to state agencies informing them that their anti-discrimination policies couldn’t be any broader than the state’s—in other words, they had to remove the carve-outs based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Both moves were roundly criticized in the press but served to rally his conservative base.
Cuccinelli has always had singular appeal among state activists. “[T]he first time I recall seeing a Gadsden flag in Virginia politics was at the 2009 Republican convention when Ken’s troops marched into the arena with yellow shirts and giant flags and the place exploded,” wrote Brian Schoeneman at Bearing Drift. He’s a staunch social conservative, though one who isn’t prone to Todd Akin-like gaffes and who enjoys significant support from Ron Paul libertarians.
Once the state GOP, with Cuccinelli’s support, voted to keep Virginia’s convention-based nominating system in place, Bill Bolling, the presumptive nominee even six months ago, didn’t stand a chance. Thanks to a gentlemen’s agreement with Governor Bob McDonnell, the lieutenant governor had been expected to be the next in line.
On March 14th we’ll find out if Bolling intends to make an independent run as a spoiler. It’s not exactly clear who he’d spoil, though polling suggests he turns a tight race into a slight lead for Democrat Terry McAuliffe. It’s been rumored that Bolling would run in exchange for the promise of some cabinet appointment in a McAuliffe administration, but at this point the rumors seem baseless.
As the tie-breaking vote in a state senate split 20-20, Bolling was perfectly positioned this legislative session to stand with his party and make a name for himself. Instead, he broke a tie against voter ID, went further than the governor’s transportation plan in recommending new taxes, and opposed lifting the moratorium on uranium mining in the nation’s largest undeveloped deposit. The senate GOP got egg on its face for trying to pass a redistricting bill while one Democrat was at Obama’s inauguration, but the trick wouldn’t even have been necessary if Bolling had been willing to vote with his party on the measure. With his lack of a real base and grab-bag of supposed centrist priorities, Bolling is more Charlie Crist than consensus-building moderate.
It’s tempting to slot the division into the usual establishment-versus-insurgency narrative that dominates so much thinking about the GOP, but that doesn’t quite fit. One might say each represents a different establishment, but at this point it isn’t even clear that Bolling has one at all. Cuccinelli on the other hand has become a darling of the conservative movement and the Tea Party, with Rand Paul and Brent Bozell blurbing his new book. Conservatism Inc. has none of the reservations about him that the state party at one time did.
Even liberals think Cuccinelli’s chances are pretty good. In a January cover story for Richmond’s alt-weekly, veteran Virginia journalist Peter Galuszka wrote that Cuccinelli is “in an exceptionally strong position given his colorful nature and a so-far lackluster competition,” despite his supposedly extreme views. The Prospect’s Jamelle Bouie is bullish too, arguing the electorate is strongly the AG’s favor:
The conventional wisdom, so far, is that [his extreme views make] Cuccinelli a long shot for the governor’s mansion, on account of Virginia’s changing demographics. Not only did Virginia voters support President Obama in 2008 and 2012, but they also elevated Mark Warner and Tim Kaine (two former governors) to the Senate.
Virginia’s off-year elections, however, attract a different crowd. The diverse electorate of 2008—28 percent nonwhite, 54 percent female, and mostly under the age of 45—stayed home in 2009. The one that came to the polls was whiter (78 percent compared to 70 percent), older (52 percent of all voters were over the age of 45), mostly Republican (37 percent), and largely conservative (40 percent). McDonnell’s double-digit win over Democrat Creigh Deeds was all but baked into the cake.
But Terry McAuliffe is no Creigh Deeds, the party’s last gubernatorial nominee, a classic Virginia Democrat who represents Bath County in the Senate and has lived in the state most of his life. McAuliffe lives in McLean and catches as much flak for his Beltway liberalism as Cuccinelli does for his Tea Party ardor.