Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

What GOP can learn from Cuccinelli's tanking bid in Virginia

By John Avlon, CNN Contributor
November 5, 2013 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
Conservative Republicans can take a lesson from the extremist -- and failing -- candidacy of Ken Cuccinelli, John Avlon says.
Conservative Republicans can take a lesson from the extremist -- and failing -- candidacy of Ken Cuccinelli, John Avlon says.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Avlon: Ken Cuccinelli appears too extreme for swing voters in Virginia
  • Democrat Terry McAuliffe would be vulnerable against almost any other Republican, he says
  • Avlon: Cuccinelli's candidacy symbolizes trouble GOP faces in 2014, 2016 elections
  • The run to the right shows what not to do nationally and in Virginia, he says

Editor's note: John Avlon, a CNN contributor and senior columnist and executive editor of The Daily Beast, is the author of "Independent Nation" and "Wingnuts." He won the National Society of Newspaper Columnists' award for best online column in 2012.

(CNN) -- Virginia is a cautionary tale for conservatives this year. And those Republicans who always argue that their party wins when it moves further to the right are going to have a lot of explaining to do after Election Day.

Polls show that "teavangelist" Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli is going down to a decisive defeat in the governor's race against an exceptionally flawed Democratic candidate, Terry McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chairman and Clinton fund-raiser.

The reason is simple: Cuccinelli is too extreme for swing voters in Virginia -- and that neatly symbolizes the GOP's problem as it looks to the congressional midterms of 2014 and the presidential campaign of 2016.

John Avlon
John Avlon

The problems have been long brewing in Virginia. Once a Republican bastion, the Old Dominion began to turn from red to purple in 2008 when Barack Obama became the first Democrat to win the state since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. But in true swing state fashion, Virginia turned around and elected conservative Bob McDonnell governor in 2009; he managed to win by 17 points, cloaking his conservatism in a family-friendly demeanor.

Obama won the state again in 2012, buoyed by demographic changes and the increasing wealth in the region around Washington. Nonetheless, a centrist Republican might still have been well-positioned to win Virginia's governorship in this off-year election. But that does not remotely describe Cuccinelli.

A tea party favorite and self-described "Second Amendment-supporting Christian right-to-life home-school dad," Cuccinelli has built a political career on a foundation of strident social conservatism. Proclaiming "homosexuality is wrong," supporting abstinence-only sex education and devoting himself to abortion restrictions as a matter of faith and law, Cuccinelli has been eager to use political office to advance an ideological agenda.

As attorney general he sued to stop the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, challenged the Environmental Protection Agency's fuel-efficiency standards, backed the controversial Arizona illegal immigration law and issued a legal opinion that sexual orientation should not be included in nondiscrimination statutes for the University of Virginia.

His extreme play-to-the-base conservative reputation was only accelerated by the selection at the state convention of E.W. Jackson as his running mate for lieutenant governor. He's an African-American evangelical pastor with a knack for saying things such as the following: Democrats are "anti-Christian, anti-Bible, anti-family, anti-life and anti-God"; "Liberalism and their ideas have done more to kill black folks whom they claim so much to love than the Ku Klux Klan, lynching and slavery and Jim Crow ever did," and "Obama clearly has Muslim sensibilities. He sees the world and Israel from a Muslim perspective."

Gingrich: McAuliffe has 'Clinton machine'
What to expect on Election Day 2013
Hillary Clinton rallies for McAuliffe

Add this all together and you have the most far-right statewide ticket in recent memory.

Not surprisingly, centrists and other swing voters are looking elsewhere.

Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis is polling a respectable 10% -- an indication of the political costs that come from such strident social conservatism, even among fellow travelers on the center-right. Women voters are supporting McAuliffe by 20% -- a cavernous gap that reflects Cuccinelli's social conservative obsession. Against almost any other Republican, McAuliffe would be vulnerable, but not Cuccinelli.

October's GOP-driven government shutdown caused Cuccinelli to play defense, reversing longtime rhetoric by suddenly denouncing the effort to force a delay in Obamacare's implementation and even refusing to be photographed with Sen. Ted Cruz for fear of further alienating swing voters.

At the gubernatorial debates, the defiant culture warrior was reduced to bleating about the importance of bipartisanship and compromise -- laugh lines if you knew the first thing about Cuccinelli's record.

Cuccinelli's problems must be seen side by side with the success of another Republican running for governor -- Chris Christie. The New Jersey incumbent is cruising to re-election by a broad margin in a state where only 20% of voters are registered Republicans. He is narrowly winning nonwhite voters, and winning women by a 20-point margin.

The difference between the two candidates is self-evident -- Christie has governed as an unapologetic centrist Republican with a no-nonsense focus on fighting for fiscal discipline rather than an obsession with social conservatism. He has built cross-aisle coalitions, even on controversial policy proposals, and reached out beyond the base. He puts problem-solving ahead of partisanship or ideology. In other words, Christie is pretty much the opposite of Cuccinelli, and that's why he is winning in an otherwise ugly year for Republicans.

Conservatives will come up with lots of reasons why a swing state such as Virginia seems to be slipping away. But let's cut to the chase -- candidates who specialize only in playing to the base and pushing ideological absolutism lose. Extremes are always ultimately their own side's worst enemy. And Cuccinelli's last desperate attempts to present himself as a bipartisan problem-solver or a libertarian are really just evidence of the political bankruptcy of his position.

For those conservatives who always argue that moving more rigidly to the right is the answer to all the Republican Party's political problems, the toxic Cuccinelli-Jackson ticket is providing an enduring Exhibit A in making the opposite case. It is an example of what not to do -- nationally and especially in must-win swing states such as Virginia.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT