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Ken Cuccinelli's Crazy Ambition

Virginia's AG is running for governor in 2013, but don't rule out a bigger run in 2016

Getty/Mark Wilson

Kenneth Cuccinelli II was that student in class who always had his hand up.

Even during the anxiety-ridden opening days of law school, the New Jersey-born “Cooch”—as he was, and still is, known to friends—was demonstrating the clear-eyed confidence and unwavering assertiveness that’s become a staple of his persona as Virginia’s conservative firebrand attorney general.

“When you ask a question in a Socratic dialogue in torts, the ones who are afraid to answer don’t raise their hand. The ones who think, ‘Well, I have an answer . . ,’ those are the ones who you value. Cuccinelli was always one of those people,” said Michael Krauss, a George Mason University law professor who recalls granting Cuccinelli extra credit for his effusive class participation.

Two decades later, the 44-year-old Cuccinelli is aiming to climb to the top of another class: The Grand Old Party. While he’s currently in the midst of a competitive campaign for governor of Virginia, it’s more than apparent Cooch’s ambitions lie far beyond Richmond. He's an omnipresent guest on FOX News, and in February published a book, The Last Line of Defense: The New Fight for American Liberty. Make no mistake about that title: Cuccinelli sees himself as that last line of defense, a would-be party savior who unabashedly fights for conservative values that, even within the GOP, have become increasingly unpopular.

In short, when Ken Cuccinelli wakes up in the morning, he looks in the mirror and sees a man on the road to the White House—or at least a candidate of presidential timber. Though he's more likely looking toward 2020, after he’s (theoretically) completed his first term as governor, it's not inconceivable that he's arming himself for the ideological gunfight that's sure to break out in the 2016 Republican primary.

If indeed he’s able to dispatch former Democratic National Committee chairman and uber-fundraiser Terry McAuliffe just as Republicans are enduring a wrenching period of soul-searching about their identity, his timing could be impeccable. He has the social conservative street cred of Rick Santorum, speaks the libertarian language of Rand Paul, and brandishes the constitutional acumen of Ted Cruz. And if he captures the governorship, odds are he’ll have a longer list of tangible achievements in two years than Marco Rubio racks up in five. He'll also, surely, have a longer list of controversies.

Those controversies are why many think his designs on the national stage is a fool’s errand. Consider his recent fight to uphold Virginia's anti-sodomy law. In order to prove a larger point in a sex crimes case, Cuccinelli requested an appeals court to uphold a law that essentially makes anal and oral sex a crime—exactly the type of move that makes him look like a relic cultural warrior.

Before that, there was his legal opinion advising colleges and universities not to include “sexual orientation” as a protected class without the approval of lawmakers. And the legislation to establish English-only workplaces. And his brief flirtation with the birther movement when he opined that the odds Obama was born in Kenya did not “seem beyond the realm of possibility.”

Such audacity has endeared him to hardcore conservatives far beyond the borders of Virginia. Most consequentially, though, are the inroads Cuccinelli is paving with the early state activists and players who matter the most in a presidential nominating process. Conservative Iowa radio talk show host Steve Deace, who has already had Cuccinelli on his program at least three times, said he first saw evidence of the attorney general’s ascent back in December 2011, when he served as a panelist on Mike Huckabee’s Fox News presidential forum. During the q-and-a that night, Cuccinelli pointedly pressed Texas Gov. Rick Perry on his suggestion that an executive order could effectively repeal President Obama’s health care law.

“I just want to be real clear to make sure I understand this: You are taking the position that you can stop the implementation of a law passed by Congress, signed by the president, with an executive order?” he inquired.

Perry swiftly recalibrated his answer.

“After that, I heard numerous people asking, ‘Why isn’t that guy running for president?” recalled Deace. “He is clearly a rising star in the conservative movement. He’s really liked by a lot of the right to work, Ron Paul, Rand Paul libertarian crowd. If he can bring the two camps (of conservatives and libertarians) together, you are a very viable national candidate in the Republican Party.”

Bob Vander Plaats, an influential social conservative who heads Iowa’s Family Leader, called himself a “big fan” of Cuccinelli’s and said he should definitely keep his 2016 options open. “Cuccinelli’s bold, he doesn’t back away from what he believes and I think people really appreciate that about him,” said Vander Plaats, who endorsed both Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, the two previous winners of the Iowa caucus. “If a country calls, you’ve got to be ready to respond to that call.”

As someone whose career has been littered with the markings of a man in a hurry, Cuccinelli appears primed to answer it: It’s hard to think of another state attorney general who could successfully hawk a book in Iowa and New Hampshire in the same year he’s running for governor elsewhere. Earlier this year, to promote his book, Cuccinelli was on Granite State radio ticking off examples of the “zealous and brazen overreach of federal government.” Even the host, journalist James Pindell, couldn’t help himself from pondering about Cuccinelli’s aspirations. “Most become governor first before talking to New Hampshire reporters,” said Pindell. “It is clear he sees himself as a leading conservative voice nationwide.”

Last spring, Cuccinelli was the keynote speaker at the annual Iowa Republican Party gala and then later dined privately with Rep. Steve King, according to a Hawkeye State source. In 2010, he flew around the state to stump for the GOP’s attorney general candidate. Deace said the attention has paid dividends with the most dedicated conservative foot soldiers, whose affinity for Cuccinelli falls in a tier just below Huckabee and Santorum. “If you put a bunch of Iowa Republican activists in the room … just as many would know Ken Cuccinelli as Bobby Jindal,” he said.

“He’s obviously been a conservative favorite over the last few years,” said Sal Russo, co-founder of the Tea Party Express, which primarily focuses its attention on federal races. “He gets around. You hear people have talked to him at this event, at that event. There are not many attorney generals that have that.”

It says something about Cuccinelli’s raw ambition that he already has one eye trained on national prominence when his race for the governorship is balanced on a knife’s edge. A late March survey by Quinnipiac University put him just ahead of McAuliffe, 40 percent to 38 percent—the kind of statistical dead heat Virginia is known for.

If Cuccinelli loses, it’s difficult to see how he would remain relevant beyond a cable-kibitzing talking head. After all, a loss, coupled with a likely crushing win by CPAC-shunned Gov. Chris Christie, would hand the distressed GOP establishment one more painful example of why the party must moderate itself before the next presidential election. But even if he wins this off-year race, is it realistic to think the Republican Party would turn to another rigid ideological warrior to carry the torch?

The Catholic father of seven is most famous for being the first attorney general in the country to file a lawsuit to stop the implementation of President Obama’s health care law. He successfully sued the Environmental Protection Agency, preventing the body from regulating stormwater in a Fairfax County watershed. A skeptic of global warming, he relentlessly probed a former University of Virginia’s professor’s methods of climate-change research, a crusade that sent shivers through the academic community. This is the stuff tea party legends are made of.

The temptation could be too much to resist among the diehards. But given the country’s trajectory on issues like gay marriage and immigration, elevating Cuccinelli would more likely invite electoral disaster for a party in desperate need to put a win on the board. If Rubio is peaking too soon, Cuccinelli’s brand of conservatism may be a decade late. And while some have read some of Cuccinelli’s recent moves, like refusing to sign Grover Norquist’s no-tax pledge, as a slide to the middle, the incremental refinement of his rhetoric is almost irrelevant.

He has a lengthy, well-established record of staking out positions on the hard right end of the spectrum. Furthermore, it’s not only that Cuccinelli holds down-the-line traditionally conservative views on abortion, gay marriage and immigration, it’s the lengths he’s gone to pursue the culture wars and the rhetoric he’s employed.

One issue bound to attract more attention is legislation he authored in 2008 that would allow a company to fire employees who don’t speak English and deem them ineligible for unemployment benefits. The English language proposal never went anywhere, but civil rights groups howled that Cuccinelli’s bill would have placed employees at risk even if they spoke a different language on their break or in the lunch room. At the time, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Richard Saslaw called it “the most mean-spirited piece of legislation I have seen in my 30 years down here,” according to The Washington Post.

Cuccinelli’s interest in the strictest of sodomy laws goes back almost a decade.  

As recent as 2004, according to The Washington Times, Cuccinelli suggested that the gay movement’s plan to “dismantle sodomy laws” was designed to “get education about homosexuals and AIDS in public schools.” Former GOP Rep. Vince Callahan—who served 40 years in the House of Delegates, overlapping Cuccinelli’s early tenure in the state Senate in the early 2000s—described the Republican candidate as “reactionary and obstructionist” and a purveyor of homophobia. “Cuccinelli was off there by himself,” Callahan recalled from his days in Richmond. “During that time you had more or less a coalition of mainline Republicans and Democrats to get the job done. But you had this Corporal’s Guard of a half dozen Republicans in the Senate who opposed everything and Cuccinelli was the heart of that organization. He was an outsider with the insiders.” Callahan is now one of three former GOP lawmakers who have publicly crossed the rubicon to support McAuliffe. (Cuccinelli’s campaign declined to make him available for an interview and passed on responding to questions about these issues.)

But it’s evident that during a period when many were attempting to temper and finesse the harder edges of the social conservative movement that roiled the 1990s, Cuccinelli continued to be unbending and vocal. “He has taken his share of lumps,” said former Democratic Gov. Douglas Wilder, speaking of the torrent of critical media coverage that’s saddled Cuccinelli. “The remarkable thing, for a guy who has gone through this type of fire and still even be tied or somewhat leading in the polls, is amazing.”

The blitzkrieg against Cuccinelli has yet to commence, but privately even Democrats acknowledge he could win. History shows that the party out of the White House usually picks up the governor’s mansion. Ironically, though, a Cuccinelli victory in a low-turnout election could bear the biggest risk for Republicans heading into 2016. On top of Democrats being able to highlight a rising leader who urged those opposed to a federal mandate for contraception coverage to “go to jail” and who has drawn comparisons between abortion and slavery, Cuccinelli would offer up a sort of forbidden fruit—an articulate, swing-state ideologue who is as pugnacious as he is self-assured.

Tea partiers who fervently believe the party’s obsession with cleaving toward the center has resulted in a pummeling at the polls would be—in fact, already are—attracted to Cuccinelli. Last month, just as a swath of top GOP leaders had been openly acknowledging the need to recalibrate their rhetoric and rethink long-held policy positions in the wake of last year’s demoralizing defeat, Cuccinelli was delivering the first speech at CPAC, vowing to “defend our most sacred principles.”

“The one thing that even my staunchest opponents will admit is I’m a straight shooter and that I’m a man of my word,” he said.

And that's the problem, at least for Cuccinelli's national ambitions. On the state level, in an off-year when the masses tune out politics, he may get away with opposing sodomy and gay marriage and bashing bedrock entitlement programs. But if he remains a man of his word, rather than adjusting his positions to the political winds, then the best he can hope for—whether it be in 2016 or 2020—is to become the next Mike Huckabee or Rick Santorum: a compelling figure only to a fervent, but shrinking part of the electorate. Absent a makeover, his road to the White House is paved in delusion.