The Odd, Painful, and Bizarre Final Days of Ken Cuccinelli

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Oct. 29 2013 12:27 PM

The Final Days of Ken Cuccinelli

No one would have guessed that Terry McAuliffe would be Virginia’s Democratic champion.

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The point of this rally was to rev up the Republican base, in the hope that the April Hudsons have more clout than they do when turnout is higher on the other side. Before the race is over, Cuccinelli will have stumped with Paul, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former presidential candidate Rick Santorum, a crew of conservative state attorneys general, and the radio host and author Mark Levin. Off-year Virginia electorates are whiter and older and more conservative than the electorates that elected Barack Obama twice. “We’ve got to close like we’ve closed every race we’ve been in, and that is—better than the other side,” said Cuccinelli. He evoked the memory of a 2007 state Senate race that he won after days of recanvassing ballots. “You know what they call you when you win an election in a recount? Senator.”

But apart from the die-hards, few people expect this race to be in the margin for a recount. I drove up the road to Herndon, Va., stopping at one of the convenience stores that remind Republicans every day of how the region is ebbing away from them. Outside, a few groups of day laborers loitered away the afternoon. Inside, a mostly Hispanic clientele wandered past the bargain stacks of Corona and Modelo Especial to buy Red Bull and—yes—Big Gulps.

And a few minutes away, the line for McAuliffe’s rally stretched around most of Herndon Middle School. Bill Clinton was coming in for the sixth event on a nine-stop “Putting Jobs First” tour. Mark Herring, the state senator who’s running for attorney general with McAuliffe, worked the line and told voters that his opponent, Mark Obenshain, was a Cuccinelli cheerleader. This is the closing message that has built a small lead for Herring in the only race that still seems competitive.

Bill Clinton at Terry McAuliffe Rally
Former President Bill Clinton (left) looks over the shoulder of Terry McAuliffe, Democratic nominee for Virginia governor, at a campaign event in Dale City, Va., on Oct. 27, 2013.

Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

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Cuccinelli’s rally had felt like a typical state election rally. McAuliffe’s was inflated to presidential campaign proportions—multiple checkpoints, special guests, personalized media tags, PA blasting the U2 and Bruce Springsteen songs that every Obama campaign embed still hears in his nightmares. Volunteers roamed the gymnasium signing up warm bodies for their get-out-the-vote drive. Time-filling local Democrats took the stage to ask, repeatedly, for the ambitious to sign up for three electioneering shifts.

McAuliffe arrived only after Herring, Sen. Mark Warner, and local congressman Gerry Connolly gave their own speeches lighting into the radicalism of Cuccinelli, Obenshain, and the accidental lieutenant governor candidate/grifter E.W. Jackson. (Connolly stuck to a script about the GOP ticket; Rep. Frank Wolf, who appeared at the Cuccinelli rally, led off with an update into the Benghazi investigation, encouraging people to watch last Sunday’s 60 Minutes piece.) Cuccinelli had sort of riffed on an open mic; McAuliffe squared his shoulders and, in his blaring and unaltered Syracuse, N.Y., patois, went through an exhaustive list of Cuccinelli’s crimes against moderation, from his opposition to light rail—“isn’t it time we got cars off the roads and folks into mass transit?”—to his entitlement philosophies.

“He actually called Medicaid, quote, outright welfare,” said McAuliffe, “It’s similar to his view of Medicare and Social Security, which he said were created by bad politicians to, quote, make people dependent on government.” McAuliffe’s mother took Social Security. “She’s paid into Social Security her entire life—she’s not dependent on the government!”

Halfway through this speech, the Washington Post released its final poll on the governor’s race. In the back of the room, staffers with the campaign and the Democratic Governors Association flicked through the numbers on their smartphones. All good—McAuliffe up 12, Herring up 3, Cuccinelli’s negative rating in the high 50s as McAuliffe’s positives went up. Danny Kanner, a DGA spokesman who had just sent out a release about Paul “bringing the crazy” for Cuccinelli, told of how the party would frame Jindal when he came to the state. “He was the one governor who backed the shutdown!” said Kanner.

The speeches ran on. Clinton took 25 minutes to walk the crowd through the ongoing economic crisis, Cuccinelli’s suit against climate change scientist Michael Mann, and the risk of higher Republican turnout. “The enduring virtue of [Cuccinelli’s] approach is that everyone who agrees with him will vote,” said Clinton. “Are you absolutely sure that everybody in this crowd is going to vote? How will you feel if he’s ahead in the polls and people didn’t show up? That’s what happened in Colorado in this recent recall election.”

Duly frightened, the Democrats wrapped up the rally and headed back to their cars. On the way out I ran into Jeff Barnett, a Democrat who’d run against Frank Wolf in the bleak 2010 election. He wondered if a Cuccinelli loss would tell conservatives that they needed to tone it down. He worried that they wouldn’t; they were always “fighting the last war” and saying the party was simply not conservative enough.

“You send a bunch of boys over the top,” said Barnett. “They get mowed down. So you send in another wave of them. They get mowed down. You try again. It’s Passchendaele on steroids.”

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