Can Virginia’s current attorney general and GOP candidate for state governor prove conservative ideas still win big elections?
Virginia Attorney Ken Cuccinelli began 2013 with a victory over the Obama administration, something the conservative movement was looking for after a devastating 2012 election. The victory came at the expense of the Environmental Protection Administration, which sought to actually regulate water as a pollutant, an unprecedented move that would have had ramifications reaching well beyond Virginia.
It wasn’t the first time in Cuccinelli’s tenure as attorney general that he combated federal overreach that affected states beyond his own, though he’s had mixed success. Cuccinelli was the first attorney general to challenge the constitutionality of ObamaCare, although it wasn’t his case that made it to the Supreme Court, which ultimately upheld the law. Taking on the federal regulatory state is the subject of his book, “The Last Line of Defense: The New Fight for American Liberty.”
He heads into the Virginia governor’s race in November against former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe (and possibly Virginia Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who would run as an independent). Having brandished his national credentials by scrutinizing global warming alarmists, standing up for the rights of the unborn and for private property, the commonwealth’s chief lawyer has a near spotless conservative record.
“It’s hard to beat these federal agencies in the best of circumstances. They are the 800-pound gorilla,” Cuccinelli told Townhall.
In the EPA case, the agency issued an order to cut the flow of water into Fairfax County’s Accotink Creek by half to address the sediment flow on the bottom of the creek. Cuccinelli challenged the action in federal court. Fairfax County would have lost $300 million if the EPA’s absurd order were allowed to stand. U.S. District Judge Liam O’Grady ruled on Jan. 3, “the EPA may not regulate something over which it has no statutorily granted power ... as a proxy for something over which it is granted power.”
Because of the national significance, two hours after the court ruled in Virginia’s favor, Cuccinelli called Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, a Democrat, who nevertheless has reason to be concerned. The EPA targeted three other watersheds, all in Missouri, and Koster now had legal precedent to challenge it.
“It’s a federalism win in Virginia and a federalism win everywhere because the same rules apply across the country,” Cuccinelli said. “This was bipartisan, us and a Democratic Fairfax County Board of Supervisors suing the Obama EPA two and a half months before the president’s re-election.”
Northern Virginia is far and away the most liberal part of Virginia and the most challenging region for Cuccinelli in the governor’s race that in some ways strikingly resembles his first political campaign, when he won a seat in the state legislature representing part of that area.
Cuccinelli will be accepting his party’s nomination in May, even as many pundits believe he is too conservative to win a battleground state twice won by President Barack Obama.
His campaign 11 years ago to represent a moderate Northern Virginia district in the state Senate was likewise considered an uphill climb. Cuccinelli even lacked the support of his GOP predecessor in that seat.
In 2002, Cuccinelli, a patent attorney, entered the race for the 37th District Senate seat that stretches along the Capital Beltway. The seat was left vacant by moderate Republican Warren Barry, who took a post in the administration of popular Democratic Gov. Mark Warner, elected the previous year. Cuccinelli beat a more well-known Republican in the primary in June and went on to face Democrat Cathy Belter, who heavily outspent him and had the backing of Republican Barry.
Still, the campaign was about a transportation tax increase Warner was pushing for Northern Virginia that Cuccinelli opposed and Belter supported. Cuccinelli won 55 percent of the vote. The Richmond Times-Dispatch and The Washington Post correctly predicted it was an omen for the tax’s defeat in a referendum the following November.
Having completed Barry’s term, Cuccinelli ran in much closer races in 2003 and 2007 (Democrats recaptured control of the state Senate in 2007) and won despite being outspent by Democrats.
Then in the 2009 Republican sweep, Robert McDonnell won the governorship by 59 percent of the vote, Cuccinelli won the attorney general race with 58 percent and Bolling won a second term as lieutenant governor with 57 percent.
The stakes for the 2013 Virginia governor’s race are high as one of two gubernatorial contests competing for national attention in an off-year election—the other being the New Jersey governor's race.