Does Ken Cuccinelli Have Any Place in a Rebranded Republican Party?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Feb. 14 2013 7:34 PM

The Cuccinelli Manifesto

Virginia’s attorney general doesn’t fit the Republican rebranding. He is ultraconservative and undaunted.

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli speaks at a campaign rally.
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s secret is simple: He runs when things are good for Republicans

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Serious question: When was the last time a politician wrote a policy manifesto right before a campaign, and it didn’t do irreparable damage to his internal organs? Sen. Rick Santorum published It Takes A Family right before his 2006 re-election bid, and Democrats plumbed his pre-Vatican II views to destroy him. Gov. Rick Perry published Fed Up!, then ran for president and looked dazzled when Republican voters rejected his “Ponzi scheme” take on Social Security. (To be fair, Perry always looked dazzled.)

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

On Jan. 30, two weeks before The Last Line of Defense hit shelves and Kindle apps, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s own book was leaked to the Washington Post. In it, Cuccinelli would “echo Romney’s 47 percent” remarks, writing that Medicare, Social Security, and “outright welfare” all “make people dependent on government,” sapping the country’s verve. “Romney’s words, captured on a hidden camera, helped sink his campaign,” pointed out the paper, helpfully. “Time will tell how the similar language plays for Cuccinelli.”

The Washington Post keeps waiting for the time when Cuccinelli will be sunk. It never comes. “He doubts the science of global warming,” wrote the paper in a 2009 editorial, endorsing his opponent in the attorney general race. “He peddles outmoded, half-baked and prejudicial theories about homosexuals.” He won by 15 points. He spooked any possible Republican rival out of this year’s gubernatorial race—they remembered 2009, when Gadsen-flag-waving Cuccinelli fans took over the state party convention—and in the most recent poll, he’s winning.

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Cuccinelli’s secret is simple: He runs when things are good for Republicans. Virginia holds state elections in odd-numbered years, so their A-team—Gov. Bob McDonnell, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, Cuccinelli—haven’t ever fought the tide of Obama turnout. In 2009, Virginia’s electorate was 78 percent white and 40 percent “conservative”; in 2012, those numbers fell to 70 percent and 31 percent. His Democratic foe this year will be Terry McAuliffe, who has all the populist appeal of a long-lost Romney brother. The biggest threat to a Cuccinelli governorship comes from Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who keeps threatening to run as an independent, and warns that Cuccinelli’s new tome will give Democrats “ammunition” to destroy him.

If that’s the case, then 2013 will be the year the Tea Party finally croaks. Cuccinelli is the Tea Party in one body, an underrated and likeable politician who sees it as his mission on earth to unwind government power. He was, he constantly reminds us, the first state attorney general to sue the federal government over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. “After I was elected, but before I was sworn in as attorney general,” he was on the phone with other AGs about how to do this, no matter what was in the bill. Five minutes after President Obama signed it, Cuccinelli—trailed by TV cameras—walked over to Richmond’s federal courthouse to file the suit.

“It was not until later that evening,” recalls Cuccinelli, “after the suit was filed, the calls of the day had been made, and all the media interviews were finished—that I realized that day, March 23, 2010, was the 235th anniversary to the day of Patrick Henry’s ‘Give me liberty or give me death’ speech … which he gave in Richmond, Virginia … just one mile away down the very same street from the federal courthouse.” The ellipses are his, meant to evoke the moment. “I was just thankful to God that this time we fought with arguments in the courtrooms of America, and not with bullets on the bloody battlefields of war.”

The bulk of his book recounts the history of the health care lawsuit, which the attorneys general lost—and which Cuccinelli, who sued the government independently of the main AG coalition, lost even more decisively. He tells the history that became less than relevant after the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision, the tale of the Obama administration fumbling and getting constantly outmatched. “At several points, Justice Kagan seemed to try to ‘carry’ Solicitor General Verrilli through his own argument, as he tried to make useful points,” he writes. He high-fives Justice Samuel Alito for a comparison—health care costs to burial costs—that didn’t end up impressing anyone. “In one short question, Justice Alito utterly decimated the ‘logic’ of the federal government’s explanation of the supposed ‘uniqueness’ of the health care market.”

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