RICHMOND, Va. (MCT) — Ken Cuccinelli is running for governor, not Congress, but the Virginia Republican is still struggling to dodge the political fallout from Capitol Hill.
His campaign in this crucial battleground state is in danger of becoming the first political casualty of the federal government shutdown, which Americans largely blame on Republicans.
With the election just weeks away, Cuccinelli's poll numbers have tumbled since federal agencies were shuttered Oct. 1. The conservative state attorney general was already lagging, but he went from within striking distance of a vulnerable Democrat to trailing by 8 to 10 percentage points in three independent polls.
As the candidate, a tea party favorite, seeks to distance himself from fellow activists in Congress, national GOP leaders are worried that a key office they expected to hold in a closely watched election is slipping away.
They also fear the shutdown could tarnish the party's brand ahead of next year's midterm election. Not all Republican candidates are suffering because of the shutdown. In Democratic New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie, a GOP nonconformist, is positioned to cruise to re-election.
Christie is conservative, but he has not allied himself with the tea party. Instead, he has focused on issues that most concern voters, such as the runaway costs of public employee benefits, and he is moving ahead with President Barack Obama's health care law. The New Jersey governor shows little regard for how his policies affect score cards with activists on the right.
"Republicans should think about these things as they ponder who to support in 2016," said strategist Steve Schmidt, who ran Arizona Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign in 2008. Schmidt sees the Virginia race as a cautionary tale for the party.
"You have a campaign that has been unable to transcend its ideological baggage, running against someone who would have been beatable with almost any other conceivable candidate."
Cuccinelli also has the misfortune to be running in the state with the most federal workers. Analysts say the uneasiness many voters had with Cuccinelli's tea party brand of Republicanism has solidified into outright opposition.
"The shutdown is hurting Cuccinelli," said Quentin Kidd, a professor of political science at Christopher Newport University in Newport News. For voters on the fence, he said, "it helped them make a decision. They thought, if that is the kind of thing we'd be looking at with Ken Cuccinelli, then I am not interested."
Establishment Republicans are frustrated. The Democratic nominee, Terry McAuliffe, is a former chairman of the national party and is saddled with baggage.
His business dealings have long attracted unflattering media attention, including allegations that he cashed in on his Clinton-era political connections to grow his personal fortune. At the Democratic National Committee, his fundraising tactics pushed ethical boundaries. He's been compared to a carnival barker and a used car salesman.
But in a part of the country that has drifted from solidly red to solidly purple, polls suggest the statewide electorate would sooner vote for a candidate who may strike them as smarmy than one allied with the Republican Party's most extreme politicians.
"I don't like McAuliffe, but I really don't like Cuccinelli," said Cindy Freese, 59, a retired reinsurance executive in Alexandria who is registered as an independent. Her husband is a federal employee poised to miss his mid-month paycheck. Freese said she would "absolutely" vote for a moderate Republican for governor, "but there aren't any anymore."
Virginia's electoral landscape, like that of the country overall, has shifted amid an influx of immigrants and the growth of diverse suburbs. In last year's presidential election, the Obama campaign used those changing demographics to its advantage, microtargeting voters with messaging that appealed to them. McAuliffe has recruited some of the data whizzes and strategists behind that effort to replicate it in Virginia.
The Cuccinelli campaign represents the traditional approach. The candidate is the kind of firebrand conservative whom party activists believe energizes voters in the style of Ronald Reagan. As attorney general, he fought to block Obama's health care law. A climate change skeptic, he launched an investigation into a University of Virginia scientist whose research warned of a rise in temperatures. He has condemned homosexuality and sought to reinstate anti-sodomy laws rejected by the courts.
That record is not playing well with many Virginians, uneasy with the rigid ideologies at the root of the shutdown. At a University of Richmond forum last week, Cuccinelli avoided much of it.
He lamented the refusal to compromise in Congress, saying he opposes the shutdown. He said Republicans failed the country on health care by not doing anything to fix a broken system when they controlled the White House and Congress. Asked to name the biggest social policy on his agenda, Cuccinelli responded: "That isn't what I am running on."
McAuliffe reminded the audience that Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a current tea party favorite, had just stumped in Virginia for Cuccinelli. "The architect of the shutdown was here last week," McAuliffe said.
"He and Ken Cuccinelli went to an event together. I wouldn't have even been in the same room with Ted Cruz, with all the damage he has done."
To be sure, Cuccinelli's stumble began before the shutdown. Federal investigators are looking into a business executive's connections to Gov. Bob McDonnell, and the inquiry has tainted the state party. Cuccinelli's attacks on McAuliffe's ethics were blunted when it came out that he had accepted $18,000 in gifts from the businessman.
(c)2013 Tribune Co. Distributed by MCT Information Services