RICHMOND, Va. – 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 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.