McAuliffe, above, is expected to face Cuccinelli in Virginia’s gubernatorial race this year.
While most political attention these days is focused on the nation’s capital and President Barack Obama’s second term, across the river in Virginia, politicians from both parties are preparing for what seems to be the oddest gubernatorial race the state has seen in years.
Each party is poised to nominate a deeply flawed candidate for the state’s top post, with the winner replacing the popular current governor, Republican Bob McDonnell.
GOP Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli is widely regarded as the sort of politician who never met a Democrat he didn’t want to fight — an ideologue for whom burning bridges is the preferred option.
Allies of the attorney general prefer to emphasize the positive aspects of his agenda and style, arguing that he is principled, honest and straightforward. “There is never any doubt where he stands on an issue,” one ally said.
“He has a spine of steel rooted in principle, but he is engaging, friendly and has a good sense of humor,” said another admirer of the attorney general, adding, “And he is wicked smart.”
Supporters argue that the picture painted of the attorney general by the media is as unfair as it is unflattering. They point to his years trying to educate people about and mobilize action against sexual assault, going all the way back to his days as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, and they promise that by the time November rolls around, voters will have a better idea of who Cuccinelli really is.
But while criticism of Cuccinelli coming from liberals and Democrats is predictable and therefore less convincing, it is criticism of him from conservatives and Republicans that raises the most questions about the attorney general’s appeal and viability in a general election.
“Cuccinelli’s biggest problem isn’t his ideology,” said one Republican who generally agrees with him on most issues. “It’s his attitudes toward voters and his fellow Republicans that it’s ‘my way or the highway.’ When he’s attacked, he’ll almost always double down. He sees backing off as compromising on principle.”
Republicans note that Cuccinelli and McDonnell don’t disagree on many issues but have much different campaign styles.
The governor ran and has governed as a smiling, likable, consensus-building conservative. During his 2009 campaign, he stayed focused on economic issues, steering away from social issues even when critics tried to make the election about his master’s thesis for Regent University two decades earlier.
While allies of Cuccinelli say the engineer-turned-attorney can be just as disciplined as McDonnell, other Republicans are skeptical. They believe that too often he sounds confrontational and inflexible, and they doubt that he will be able to ignore criticism.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, speaks with reporters in the Capitol after a speech on the Senate floor that accused the CIA of searching computers set up for Congressional staff for their research of interrogation programs.