BERNSTEIN: Guilt by association

If Cuccinelli does not distance himself from extreme House Republicans, his campaign will not succeed

There has been a lot of speculation lately about how the government shutdown will affect midterm elections in the House, but the shutdown will also have an effect on the gubernatorial election here in Virginia. This effect will negatively impact the Republican candidate, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli — to the point that he will likely lose this election.

Cuccinelli is already seen as an extremist, at least socially. His support for anti-sodomy laws and his firmly pro-life stance have hurt him with social liberals and, more significantly for his campaign, with women. Though some might argue that the timing of the Republican-driven shutdown and Cuccinelli’s race (and the association voters will draw between the two) is an unfortunate coincidence, without the polarizing social conservatism he has already displayed, the shutdown wouldn’t be such a blow to his campaign.

But even despite the shutdown’s inevitable negative effect on his campaign, Cuccinelli could be handling the situation better. At the start of the shutdown, Cuccinelli had an opportunity to distance himself from other extreme conservatives; his failure to do so is new ammunition for his competitor, former chairman of the Democratic Party Terry McAuliffe. Cuccinelli has barely commented on the shutdown except to condemn Senate Democrats: he has said, “what has surprised me most of all has been the steadfast refusal on the part of Democrats — led by President Obama and Harry Reid — to even sit at the negotiating table.” This reaction isolates him even more from moderate Virginians, who will likely have the deciding votes in this election, since, as in past elections, they could vote either way.

Virginia is not immune to the effects of the shutdown: almost 145,000 Virginians are directly employed by the federal government, and plenty of Virginians rely on federal government services that have been halted. Given the shutdown’s immense effect on Virginia, simply condemning it, especially for Cuccinelli, will not be enough.

A recent POLITICO poll shows that 62 percent of Virginians oppose the government shutdown over Obamacare, while 31 percent support it. Furthermore, 50 percent of Virginians blame the shutdown on House Republicans, while 35 percent blame it on President Obama and Senate Democrats. Cuccinelli has made statements recently that place the blame for the shutdown squarely on Democrats, in an attempt to tie McAuliffe to the party at fault. But in light of these polls, this strategy seems more like a favor to the McAuliffe campaign. As McAuliffe calls for Cuccinelli to condemn Republican antics, people who opposed the shutdown in the first place will side more with McAuliffe, but attempts by Cuccinelli to group McAuliffe in with Senate Democrats and the Obama administration will only appease existing Cuccinelli voters, as opposed to gaining him any new ones.

To make matters worse, Cuccinelli recently appeared at an event with Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who spearheaded the massively unpopular shutdown. All this has done is create another opportunity for McAuliffe to attack Cuccinelli as a supporter of House Republicans, especially since, according to the same POLITICO poll, a plurality of Virginians disapprove of Cruz. Forty-five percent of Virginians have an unfavorable opinion of Cruz, compared with 26 percent who have a favorable opinion.

Appearing with Cruz is an obvious folly, and one that the Cuccinelli campaign should have known to avoid. If Cuccinelli has any plan to win this race — which he currently is losing — he needs to do a better job of distancing himself from extremists in the party, particularly members like Cruz. It is understandable that Cuccinelli continues to condemn Obamacare and tread lightly before condemning other fellow Republicans, because it would be a mistake to anger his Tea Party base in Virginia. But his efforts to save his base are costing him the swing votes he needs to win.

After failing to distinguish himself from House Republicans for this long, it seems like Cuccinelli will not be able to bounce back. His loss will be both a side effect of the federal government’s polarization and his own political failures.

Dani Bernstein is a Viewpoint columnist for The Cavalier Daily.

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