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The Virginia Battleground in National Politics

December 14, 2011

Originally published in Aspenia Online of the Aspen Institute Italia

It was the first permanent English colony in the New World, established in 1607.

The state is often called the “Mother of Presidents,” as eight of them – a record – were born here (including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Woodrow Wilson.) In 2008, it reclaimed its spot at the center of US national politics when Barack Obama became the first democratic candidate to carry it in 44 years. And in the run-up to the 2012 presidential elections, Virginia is gearing up to be one of the most critical states in the country – a crucial battleground in the race for the White House and the stage of one of the highest-profile Senate races of the year. It is also home to one of America’s most ambitious politicians of his generation: Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a man who, in many ways, holds the key to this vital swing state’s politics.

Recently, Cuccinelli announced that he would enter Virginia’s gubernatorial race (which will take place in 2013), upending already established GOP plans and putting himself front and center in the state and national debate.

Forty-three years old, Cuccinelli, a staunch conservative and Tea Party-darling who was elected attorney general (the top lawyer in the state) in 2009, has aggressively dug into the most controversial issues of his time, and has built an unusually prominent national profile on the basis of his opposition to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s signature health care reform. He was the first of many attorneys general to take “Obamacare” to court, claiming that it violated Virginia state law.

“As an attorney general here in Virginia, Cuccinelli has not been afraid to pick fights,” says Kyle Kondik, Director of Communications at University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

He is known as a climate change-skeptic, having started a long, headline-grabbing battle with the University of Virginia, trying to subpoena the documents of Michael Mann, a former researcher at UVA and, now, a well-known climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University. Mann was involved in the so-called “climategate” and Cuccinelli accused him of falsifying evidence in order to obtain state research grants (Mann has been cleared of all wrongdoing by separate independent investigations).

The attorney general has also made enemies in the pro-LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) rights movement, with a letter he issued in 2010 to Virginia’s public colleges and universities in which he argued that they were not authorized to implement anti-discrimination policies on the bases of ‘sexual orientation,’ ‘gender identity’ and ‘gender expression.’ Finally, he has antagonized the pro-choice movement, issuing legal opinions in support of restricting abortion rights in the state.

An observant catholic with seven children, it is no surprise that Cuccinelli quickly became a poster boy for grassroots conservatives and the Tea Party in Virginia and across the country. “He is what you call a constitutional conservative,” says Jim Nolan, staff writer for the Richmond Times Dispatch. “He has a very strict interpretation of the Constitution and he believes the federal government has over-reached in the assertion of its powers in how the country is run, to the extent that it has infringed upon the states and their rights.”

A frequent guest on cable networks, Cuccinelli was recently invited by former Arkansas governor and 2008 Republican candidate Mike Huckabee (now a host on Fox News) to participate in a discussion with two other state attorney generals. On Huckabee’s show, they questioned the crop of GOP presidential hopefuls on their interpretation of the Constitution.

Critics have accused him of injecting his personal views in how he runs his attorney general office. Upon further examination, however, Cuccinelli emerges a more complex personality than he appears at first glance and, therefore, a potentially more formidable candidate.  “The Tea Party represents the most conservative wing of the Republican Party and Cuccinelli, I think, comes from that wing,” says UVA’s Kondik. “But Cuccinelli has also shown himself capable of winning in places that weren’t all that conservative.”

Before becoming Virginia’s attorney general, he was twice elected state Senator for Fairfax County – a suburb of Washington DC and a rather moderate district. He has shown an ability to build relationships across party lines, taking up issues that are dear to Democrats as well, such as veteran affairs, violence against women and care for the elderly. He has even proved less-than-enthusiastic about the death penalty.

Overall, observers of Virginia politics of all stripes, divided as they are on the things Cuccinelli stands for, seem to agree that with him “what you see is what you get.” He appears genuinely to believe in the things he says, has so far been unwilling to flip-flop on issues for electoral purposes, and is not afraid to challenge the status quo within the GOP.

When he decided last week to officially throw his hat into the gubernatorial race, Cuccinelli did so despite an agreement between sitting GOP Governor Bob McDonnell and his Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling (term-limited McDonnell promised to support Bolling in 2013.) The party will now be forced into an unwelcome primary fight, which many fear might end up dividing the party to the advantage of the Democrats.

Although the gubernatorial campaign in Virginia won’t start until a few months after the conclusion of next year’s presidential race, the effects of Cuccinelli’s decision will begin to play out much earlier. They could well influence the outcome of Virginia’s 2012 elections.

Next year, Virginia is expected to be crucial for President Obama, whose path to re-election runs through the state. Virginia will also be home to a key Senate race, upon which the balance of power in Washington might hinge. In all likelihood, former Democratic governor Tim Kaine will be up against former Republican Senator George Allen. In the GOP primary, Allen is considered the clear front-runner against a variety of grassroots conservative opponents. But Tea Party activists have mounted an all-out campaign against him: they consider him a Bush-era, high-spending conservative and a “RINO” (a Republican in Name Only).

In the presidential race, Lt. Governor Bolling, who will battle Cuccinelli for the governor’s seat, has endorsed Mitt Romney (Bolling is, in fact, the Virginia chair of the Romney campaign). And Governor McDonnell, chairman of the National Governor Association, who is often talked about as a candidate for the vice-presidential spot and who has already said he will support Bolling in 2013, is likely to endorse Mitt Romney soon as well.

Ken Cuccinelli has yet to endorse candidates for the White House and Senate. Whether and how he chooses to go about it, as he weaves the necessary alliances in light of his own 2013 gubernatorial run, could make or break GOP fortunes. He is the man that can deliver Tea Party support to mainstream Republican candidates. But if he chooses to “rebel”, he could put his weight behind outsider Tea Party candidates, derailing GOP plans.

Finally, the Supreme Court will hear arguments over the constitutionality of President Obama’s health care law (albeit not Cuccinelli’s original lawsuit) and decide on it in early summer, as the presidential campaign kicks into full gear. Cuccinelli’s well-known opposition to “Obamacare” will probably put him in the national spotlight again.

In many ways, it is too early to say whether Cuccinelli’s personal ambitions will go beyond Virginia. Certainly, an eventual victory in the 2013 race for governor would be an important stepping-stone toward a national-level political career.

What matters now, says Richmond Times Dispatch’s Jim Nolan, is that “Virginia, for the last four years, has been ground zero in national politics.” This is not about to change anytime soon. From his attorney general’s pulpit, and now as a candidate for governor, Cuccinelli is sure to be a potent force in this crucial swing state.

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