NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- The careful makeover of Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli from culture warrior to Republican frontrunner for governor began Thursday in the unlikeliest of places: the nation’s largest conservative confab.
By only sparingly delivering red meat to the activists gathered at the Conservative Action Political Conference, Cuccinelli tacitly acknowledged that the changing electorate in his bellwether state demands a more measured approach. Defying attacks from Democratic frontrunner Terry McAuliffe that aim to disqualify him as a right-wing ideologue, Cuccinelli called for middle class tax cuts, education reform and only briefly referred to his crusades against abortion, environmental regulations and President Obama’s health care law.
Most strikingly, he made no mention of his opposition to Virginia’s new transportation overhaul that will raise taxes to pay for new roads, a signature achievement by Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell that is strongly endorsed by the political and business establishment. Cuccinelli’s pivot toward the center came just two days after the more moderate Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling announced he would not run for governor as an independent, leaving the business community up for grabs in the race.
“For the first time in our nation’s history, we cannot say with certainty that our children will have the opportunity to do better than we did,” Cuccinelli said, lamenting the mounting national debt. “The education we are giving many of our children does not prepare them for the global economy in which they must compete.”
The race that will send a loud signal about the direction of the electorate before the 2014 mid-terms is unofficially underway -- and the tactics of each side are coming into focus. Both candidates will try to exploit each other’s partisan background -- McAuliffe is a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee -- while touting themselves as the cooler head in the race.
Cuccinelli laid out his gubernatorial agenda in the CPAC speech: eliminating tax breaks for special interests, fighting government regulations on business and improving education. He cast himself as a defender of the most vulnerable members of society: the mentally ill, victims of human trafficking, and even inmates without legal representation.
“The governor of Virginia must be willing to speak for those citizens who do not have a voice,” he said. “If we really believe no one is beyond redemption we need to stop throwing away that key. Conservatives should lead the campaign to changing the culture of corrections in America.”
Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, called Cuccinelli remarks at CPAC “a reset speech.”
“He has a red meat record, even if he wasn’t slinging red meat here,” he said. “He seemed a bit restrained, and that may be the result of his efforts to pull back on the red meat and speak about principles.”
Cuccinelli is taking a cue from the sitting governor’s successful 2009 campaign, remembered for its economy-focused theme of “Bob’s for Jobs.” The state’s dependence on the federal government for many of those jobs and the region’s legendary traffic congestion conflict with the tea party movement’s demands for small government and lower taxes, forcing Republicans to navigate a tricky divide. By opposing the transportation deal, Cuccinelli left an opening for McAuliffe to move to the center and back the Republican governor’s plan.
“Cuccinelli is going to need to explain to the business community what transportation formula he sees as an alternative,” said Barry DuVal, president of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce. “Virginia’s infrastructure has been our Achilles heel.”
A Quinnipiac Poll in January that matched Cuccinelli against McAuliffe found a tied race.
The governor’s race in 2013 will be closely watched across the country as Virginia has evolved into the ultimate swing state. When Barack Obama carried the state in 2008, it was the first time Old Dominion had backed a Republican nominee since 1964. McDonnell snapped the state back to the Republican column in 2009 and heralded the national GOP wave in 2010. But in 2012, Virginia echoed the country’s verdict and backed Obama again.
Republicans close to the attorney general say he expects the 2013 electorate will be somewhere in between the turnout in the mid-terms and the presidential years. Voters in 2009 and 2010 tended to be older, whiter, more rural and more Republican. Turnout among voters between 18 and 29 years old in the off-years, for example, was roughly half of the youth vote in the last two presidential elections. Democratic turnout was three to six percentage points lower.
But without a united Republican base, those advantages could dissipate. Bolling, McDonnell's lieutenant governor, did not endorse Cuccinelli or McAuliffe in his statement Tuesday announcing that he would not join the race.
“In many ways I fear that the "Virginia way" of doing things is rapidly being replaced by the "Washington way" of doing things and that's not good for Virginia,” Bolling said in a statement. “As a result, the political process has become much more ideologically driven, hyper-partisan and mean-spirited. Rigid ideologies and personal political agendas are too often placed ahead of sound public policy and legitimate policy disagreements too quickly degenerate into unwarranted personal attacks.”
In a sign of the direction of the conservative movement, Cuccinelli was the first speaker at CPAC and McDonnell wasn’t even invited. The closest he will get to the conference is a Friday morning prayer breakfast sponsored by the Faith and Freedom Coalition in a nearby ballroom reserved for second-tier speakers.
Cuccinelli signaled his less ideological and more sober approach in a recent Washington Post column defending his decision not to resign as attorney general to run for governor. He said he would defend the new transportation law even though he disagrees with it. “We get the law right, first and foremost,” he wrote.
On the eve of Cuccinelli’s CPAC speech, Republicans sought to make hay of McAuliffe’s recent interview with The Virginian-Pilot in which he declined to name the members of the governor’s cabinet.
“It reinforces what everything already thinks, which is that he’s unprepared to govern," said Mike Schrimpf, a spokesman for the Republican Governors Association. “Ken Cuccinelli has spent a decade in Virginia government and he has a political background and understanding of how Virginia works. Voters are looking for a CEO who knows how to run state government."
An e-mail attack from the Democratic Governors Association cast Cuccinelli in a much different light: "Don't let the extremists win."