McDonnell, Bolling: Reaping the Cuccinelli whirlwind

Story by Chris Graham
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It’s Ken Cuccinelli’s world, and we’re just living in it. “He’s just sucking the oxygen out of Richmond,” observed Quentin Kidd, a political-science professor at Christopher Newport University, and it’s not just Richmond gasping for air right now.

Put yourself in the shoes of Gov. Bob McDonnell or Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling and imagine competing for the spotlight with the attorney general, who has pushed at the two from the right on gay rights and most recently in leading the effort among Virginia Republicans to make political hay on federal health-care reform.

It’s to a point where McDonnell felt compelled to call a press conference last week to talk about the lawsuit that Cuccinelli was filing on behalf of the Commonwealth that ended up with 12 of the 15 questions being asked by the media being directed at, you guessed it, Cuccinelli.

Conspicuous in his absence from the event was Bolling, who doesn’t seem to have a fighting chance in the battle for attention with Cuccinelli, who may or may not care that Bolling agreed to step aside from a potentially damaging contest for the ’09 GOP gubernatorial nomination with a gentleman’s agreement with McDonnell that supposedly gave him the inside track to the party nod in 2013.

“Cuccinelli has come in and stirred the whole thing up,” UVa. Center for Politics analyst Isaac Wood said. “Bolling appears to still be sticking with the McDonnell strategy, focusing on economics and steering completely clear of the social issues and conservative controversies. That could set up an interesting nomination fight were it to happen between Bolling and Cuccinelli.”

George Mason University political-science professor Mark Rozell doesn’t see that happening. Rozell wants to take Cuccinelli at his word that he’s willing to stand in line behind Bolling. “He claims he has no such aspirations for 2013, and one might believe him, that he is merely promoting these issues because he is the real deal kind of conservative. He’s never concealed himself. He doesn’t try to be what they used to call a stealth candidate. For good or bad, he’s put his issues out there and his beliefs out there. Fully. That leads some people to believe that his latest actions are not necessarily calculated for a run at future public office,” Rozell said.

“On the other hand, if he were calculating, he has certainly done himself well to get the kind of attention that he has received lately. And I can imagine the grassroots conservative movement gravitating to him, especially people who are in a mood of intense frustration right now, and looking for people like Cuccinelli to carry the flag for them,” Rozell said.

It could be the case, then, that Cuccinelli is becoming a sort of organic challenger for Bolling in 2013. He’s already organically taken control of the agenda in Virginia politics in 2010. “Bob McDonnell wanted to spend the session forcing the General Assembly to talk about budget cuts and spending his time focusing on job creation and that sort of stuff. And instead the General Assembly session was about guns, gays and budget cuts,” Kidd pointed out, noting the reprioritization of legislative priorities led by Cuccinelli that could be a sign of trouble for not just Bolling’s plans for 2013 but for McDonnell’s in 2012 and beyond as far as his next political steps are concerned.

“Cuccinelli being where he is is really going to make McDonnell’s life more difficult as governor. Because this can’t be the end of it. We’re only a few weeks into both of their terms. I can imagine that on many occasions in the next four years we’re going to be talking about the agenda that Cuccinelli has set that McDonnell is going to be having to respond to,” Kidd said.

What is most interesting to that part of the dichotomy to the Cuccinelli-McDonnell relationship is that the two share as many commonalities in terms of their ideological makeup as they do differences to their approaches to getting things done.

“Cuccinelli is a crusader for the cause. McDonnell is the ultimate pragmatist. So even though they might have the same political views on a number of issues, they approach issues quite differently from each other simply because of their very different leadership styles,” Rozell said. “It’s fascinating to watch this contrast, particularly with the issue over nondiscrimination, where Bob McDonnell disappointed some of the core conservatives in the party with his action, and yet he won a lot of plaudits from his former critics. That seems to be the behavior of somebody who is positioning himself for higher political office again in the future. Whereas Cuccinelli, I think, whether he has such aspirations or not, his behavior will be the same. He believes what he believes, he acts on it, because he’s a conservative activist, rather than a pragmatist like McDonnell.”

It’s that activism that in the end could serve as the limitation on what appears to now be an unlimited political-career trajectory for Cuccinelli – and perhaps also for Republican politicians in the Cuccinelli whirlwind.

“The real problem is after drawing the attention, you have to make that sell. And the question is going to be whether people are turned off by his stances and how active he’s been, or they’re going to look at what he’s done and say, This is someone I want to promote to higher office?” Wood said.

“Cuccinelli may be giving up long-term gains for short-term gains. He may find himself unable to move back to the middle,” Kidd said. “Bob McDonnell spent four years as attorney general moving to the middle, essentially. And he still had to deal with a lot of his baggage. And I think if he’d had a stronger opponent who had a better message, he would have had a harder time.”



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