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Ken Cuccinelli, the comeback kid

Some political watchers, me included, have had a tendency in their commentary to declare the Virginia Governor’s race all but over. However, that’s probably a mistake.

This race isn’t over. Ken Cuccinelli, whose campaign just a couple of weeks ago seemed in real trouble, is rebounding. A recent poll showed him gaining ground on his Democratic opponent. This race is likely to be a fight to the finish.

For many, there was an assumption that all the Democrats had to do was hammer on Cuccinelli’s strong, arguably extreme, conservative positions on such issues as climate change, immigration, gay rights and abortion. Or, perhaps they could just keep talking about the Attorney General’s relationship with Star Scientific and Jonnie Williams. That approach has had an effect. Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic nominee, has continued to maintain an edge in the polls, but it’s not a strong one.

So what has Ken Cuccinelli started to do right? The answer is several things. For one Cuccinelli is spending a lot more time shoring up his conservative base. His campaign, rightly, assumes that this election, since it’s in an off year, will have a lower turnout. That means that a strong vote from conservatives could have a significant impact. Some conservatives had become disheartened. Fearing that Cuccinelli and the Republicans were in trouble they had started to lose interest. That’s why the Attorney General has targeted this group with more appearances and a reminder that deep down he is their candidate. It’s working and this motivated group is starting to get fired up.

Cuccinelli has also modified his message. At least a little. While the Democrats like to focus on his stands on social issues Cuccinelli has started to talk about his activities in consumer protection. Biting good Democratic nails I have to say he has a pretty good record to brag about. He has actively combatted internet scams, particularly those aimed at senior citizens, and most notably challenged the practices of auto-title lenders.

Cuccinelli’s campaign also understands that in Virginia there is normally a sort of electoral backlash against the party that controls the White House. We are one of two states that have a gubernatorial election in an off year that immediately follows the Presidential contest. It’s an ideal opportunity for voters to cast a protest vote if they’re unhappy with the new or reelected President. Or, perhaps, in what some have suggested is a desire on the part of the electorate for balance, just to give the other party a chance. Whatever the reason, the electorate has voted like this in every election since 1977. With that in mind, there are times when it sounds like the Republican candidate is running against Barack Obama and not Terry McAuliffe.

While Cuccinelli has been the target of attacks he isn’t anxious to spare is opponent. Terry McAuliffe has his own baggage. His business relationships, his close ties to the Clintons, and his not having ever held electoral office, offer opportunities for the Republicans. However, it’s likely the Attorney General, and his supporters are saving most of these attacks for later in the campaign.

The question remains is this change in course enough to propel the Republican to victory. The answer is maybe. The Democrats are putting their hopes on Northern Virginia. As Tim Kaine proved eight years ago, if you can pull a big enough majority in this region, then that’s enough to offset the Republican advantage elsewhere. However, turnout is important. A big margin is nice, but you need the votes. And it’s not clear whether McAuliffe has the ability to get enough of these liberal leaning voters to the polls. In the meantime, Cuccinelli’s campaign, which at one point seemed a bit lost, at least now has a strategy.

You may reach David Kerr at
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