The partial federal government shutdown is throwing a fresh risk factor into the Virginia governor’s race, putting Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli on the defensive as the contest enters its final month.
Cuccinelli, the state’s attorney general, and his Democratic opponent, former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, are trading blame for the congressional deadlock, cognizant that the more than 172,000 federal civilian workers in Virginia are among the hardest hit.
Yet strategists in both parties and analysts watching the race said it’s Cuccinelli, who must appeal both to his party’s base as well as to independent voters, who stands to lose the most from the shutdown as the Nov. 5 election nears.
He won the Republican nomination with the backing of small-government Tea Party activists, who are championing the shutdown as a way to undermine President Barack Obama’s health-care law. Cuccinelli also attended a weekend fundraiser in Richmond, Virginia, that also featured Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, the highest profile advocate for the strategy that led to the current impasse.
“All of the risks here are on Cuccinelli,” said Quentin Kidd, a political scientist and polling expert at Christopher Newport University in Newport News.
“Cuccinelli is already associated in the minds of voters with the Tea Party side of the Republican Party, and the broader narrative is that the Republicans in the House and the Tea-Party faction are responsible for this shutdown,” Kidd said. “By being willing to be on stage with Ted Cruz, the Cuccinelli campaign is taking a gamble.”
In addition, the shutdown debate may energize a bloc of voters -- federal workers and their supporters -- that isn’t usually as motivated to participate in a gubernatorial race and is likely to tilt against the Republican.
“This couldn’t come at a worse time for Cuccinelli,” said former Republican Congressman Tom Davis, who represented the federal employee-heavy Washington suburbs of Virginia for more than a decade. “You’re getting a group that ordinarily isn’t engaged in a statewide election engaged, because they’re going to be angry and they don’t want to wait until 2014 to take it out on a politician.”
Cuccinelli, 45, is trying to distance himself from the Washington fight, backing an agreement that would open the government and leave the health-care fight for later.
“A shutdown is not a tool that should be used as part of a negotiation over other aspects of government,” he said Oct. 3 following a health-care roundtable with business executives in Henrico County. “Holding one part of government hostage to another part I just don’t think is a proper way to govern.”
Cuccinelli, who drew national attention in 2010 for bringing a legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act just minutes after Obama signed it, told reporters last week he “certainly would like to see the health-care law scaled back, repealed, but I also think we need to keep functioning as a government.”
As for Cruz, Cuccinelli said he isn’t in lockstep with the first-term senator who’s often mentioned as a potential 2016 presidential contender, “but we’re glad to have him coming into Virginia.”
“Would I handle the federal budget situation the same way as a senator from Virginia? Probably not,” he added with a laugh. “I would handle it differently.”
Cuccinelli tried to resist being tied too closely with Cruz at the Richmond event they both headlined Oct. 5. He avoided being photographed with him, made no mention of Cruz in his speech, and departed the Family Foundation gala before the senator took the stage.
Cuccinelli’s camp is also trying to turn the tables on McAuliffe, 56, whose team has been running TV and radio advertisements linking the Republican to Cruz and the shutdown.
In response, Cuccinelli released a radio spot lumping McAuliffe with “Washington politicians” responsible for the gridlock, in which a narrator says the Democrat “deserves part of the blame” for the shutdown.
A Cuccinelli Internet advertisement tailored to federal employees in Northern Virginia includes a video clip of McAuliffe suggesting that as governor, he wouldn’t sign a budget that failed to expand the state’s Medicaid program, a key element of Obama’s health law. “We don’t want Washington politics in Virginia,” reads the screen as the spot concludes.
‘Cut a Deal’
In an opinion piece in today’s Fairfax Times, Cuccinelli said both sides deserve blame for the federal shutdown, and argued that it was he -- not his Democratic rival -- who would be most willing to cut a deal to avoid a similar situation in Virginia.
“Terry McAuliffe would shut down the government if he didn’t get his Medicaid expansion, and I would talk to the other side until we have resolved our differences,” Cuccinelli wrote.
McAuliffe’s team is counting on the gridlock gripping Congress to aid the candidate, deepening voters’ disenchantment with Republicans. Disapproval of congressional Republicans in the budget debate has risen over the last week to 70 percent from 63 percent, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll released today.
The survey, conducted Oct. 2-6, also showed Obama’s approval rating slightly improving, to 45 percent from 41 percent in a Sept. 25-29 poll. The new survey’s error margin was plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Virginia surveys conducted before the shutdown began Oct. 1 showed McAuliffe opening a small lead over Cuccinelli, powered by an advantage with female voters. A Hampton University poll conducted in the run-up to the shutdown found McAuliffe leading Cuccinelli by 5 percentage points among likely voters, and with a 15-percentage point edge among women.
Cruz, said Davis, “is seen here as a person who is happy to hold federal workers hostage to the negotiations. He’s not a beloved figure and not somebody you want to be identifying with.”
That’s true of Rick Edmonds, a consultant from Alexandria who four years ago backed Governor Bob McDonnell, the state’s current Republican governor. Edmonds said he is undecided on the Cuccinelli-McAuliffe race.
“I’m a Republican, but I’m pretty upset with the extreme views in the party right now, and I’m frustrated” with the partial government shutdown, Edmonds, 49, said in an Oct. 3 interview. “I don’t know that much about Cuccinelli, but my impression is he is leaning more in that direction, and it’s not a good thing. I’m looking for someone who’s going to work more toward the center.”
Cuccinelli’s supporters see little likelihood that shutdown politics will hurt his chances.
Tom Dykers, a Richmond investment adviser who attended the health-care roundtable last week, said attempts to tie Cuccinelli to Cruz are unfair, and Democrats will shoulder the blame for the partial shuttering of the government.
“It’s Barack Obama and the Democrats who refuse to even sit down with” Republicans, Dykers said. As for Republicans’ efforts to link defunding the health law to continuing government funding, he added, “I don’t know if the tactic is good or bad, but I know that the health-care law is bad, and it should be vigorously fought against.”
Tea Party activists are issuing fundraising pleas to exert pressure against Republicans “willing to give up the fight against Obamacare” and end the government shutdown. Yet some of the movement’s leaders said Cuccinelli won’t pay a price for taking a position similar to the one they are criticizing.
“A lot of the people who are most impacted by the federal shutdown, federal workers, are probably going to be Terry McAuliffe voters anyway,” Judson Phillips of Richmond, a leader of Tea Party Nation, said in an interview. “The people who would accept the idea that the Democrats caused this shutdown are the people who are going to support Ken Cuccinelli.”
Phillips said the “ultimate issue that will decide this race” will be whether supporters of libertarian Robert Sarvis, a third candidate on the ballot, will cast their ballots for him, essentially handing the race to McAuliffe.
In an Oct. 4 statement, Sarvis used the current impasse to ding both Cuccinelli and McAuliffe, saying: “The government shutdown is further proof of the extreme dysfunction we’ve come to expect from Republicans and Democrats.”