Ken Cuccinelli Struggling with Makeover in Virginia Governor's Race

Beth Reinhard

It’s not easy to be the new Ken Cuccinelli.

The new Cuccinelli, the Republican front-runner in the Virginia governor’s race, is more likely these days to be calling for job growth and education reform than to be railing against abortion and gay marriage.  

But the old Cuccinelli, the attorney general who crusaded for conservative values, keeps cropping up, offering a steady stream of fodder for opponents determined to frame him as a right-wing ideologue.

"They have their strategy. We have ours," said Cuccinelli's campaign consultant, Chris LaCivita. "Ken Cuccinelli is talking about the issues Virginians care about the most: improving the economy, expanding the economy in the face of sequestration, and education."

In the latest example of the battle to define Cuccinelli, McAuliffe and his liberal allies are eager to remind voters that on Friday, the state Board of Health will hold its final hearing on new abortion clinic regulations that critics say are designed to put providers out of business. Cuccinelli is not planning to attend the meeting in Richmond, and his campaign referred questions about the matter to his official government office. 

As attorney general, Cuccinelli advised the health board not to exempt existing clinics from the new rules signed into law in 2011 by Gov. Bob McDonnell. “Cuccinelli and McDonnell’s latest political attack on women’s health to face final vote Friday,” read an e-mail missive from ProgressVA. The McAuliffe campaign used the scheduled hearing to draw attention to a video recently released by the state Democratic Party in which Cuccinelli, last June, suggested a parallel between the abolitionist and anti-abortion movements to a group of religious conservatives. “Despite weeks of criticism for comparing his own effort to outlaw all abortion to slavery abolitionists, Cuccinelli is continuing to pursue an agenda that is far outside the Virginia mainstream,” said McAuliffe’s press secretary, Josh Schwerin. The campaign also blasted out an e-mail from its female research director, Emily Aden: “Sign our petition telling Ken Cuccinelli to back off and let women make health care decisions with their doctors -- and without government interference."

Cuccinelli’s opponents similarly made hay last week when he challenged a court ruling that found Virginia’s anti-sodomy law unconstitutional. The case involves a teenage girl and a 47-year-old man who was convicted of soliciting a minor to commit a felony.

“This case is not about sexual orientation, but using current law to protect a 17-year-old girl from a 47-year-old sexual predator,” Cuccinelli spokeswoman Caroline Gibson said in a statement last week. “The attorney general is committed to protecting Virginia’s children from predators who attempt to exploit them and rob them of their childhood.”

But to McAuliffe and his allies, the case was an opportunity to remind voters of Cuccinelli’s socially conservative views. "This is just another example of Ken Cuccinelli ignoring the economy and instead focusing on his divisive ideological agenda," Josh Schwerin said.  The campaign also circulated remarks Cuccinelli made to a conservative group in 2008: "When you look at the homosexual agenda, I cannot support something that I believe brings nothing but self-destruction, not only physically but of their soul," Cuccinelli told the Family Foundation in 2008.

Hammering Cuccinelli over his opposition to abortion and gay rights is pivotal to the Democratic campaign’s efforts to turn out the single women and young people who helped Barack Obama carry the state in 2008 and 2012 but stayed home when McDonnell was elected in 2009.

“The strategy of the campaign is dependent on finding ways to mobilize Democrats who do not participate regularly in gubernatorial elections,” said Bob Holsworth, founding director of the Center for Public Policy and the Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University. “The way to do that is nationalize the election and scare people—regardless of how Cuccinelli prioritizes issues during the election."