Cuccinelli facing backlash for backing tea party allies in shutdown

10/2/2013, 3:56 p.m.
With 170,000 federal employees in Virginia and 30 percent of the economy of Northern Virginia dependent on government spending, no ...

This week Mr. Cuccinelli tried to paint Mr. McAuliffe as the real threat to bipartisanship by arguing he would shut down Virginia’s government if the General Assembly does not extend Medicaid coverage to the poor, as encouraged by the Affordable Care Act. The Cuccinelli campaign plans to “aggressively” target that message in online ads aimed at federal employees in the state, despite Mr. McAuliffe’s denial in the debate that he would shut down government.

On Wednesday, Mr. Cuccinelli scheduled a round table in Williamsburg to discuss the impact of the health care law.

But Mr. Cuccinelli is in a difficult position. His political identity was forged through his staunch opposition to Mr. Obama’s health care law — he filed a lawsuit minutes after the president signed it in March 2010 — and he is a hero to the Tea Party as a result.

He plans to appear at a fund-raiser Saturday in Richmond for a family-values group with Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who drove the “Defund Obamacare” campaign in Congress.

In recent weeks, as polls have shown Mr. McAuliffe with a small but steady lead in the race, which has been marked by a barrage of vitriolic ads, Mr. Cuccinelli refocused on energizing his conservative base, appearing with the hard-right radio host Mark Levin.

He may succeed in driving up Republican turnout. But he also risks turning off independent voters in Northern Virginia, the most populous region, whose explosive growth has turned Virginia from a Republican stronghold to a swing state.

Last week Mr. Cuccinelli campaigned in Northern Virginia by stressing endorsements he has won from business groups. The following day, the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, in the Washington suburbs, endorsed Mr. McAuliffe, a businessman and prominent Democratic fund-raiser who has never held elective office.

Jim Corcoran, president of the business group, said the endorsement was based largely on the Democrat’s support of a landmark transportation overhaul this year driven by Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican. Mr. Cuccinelli opposed it because it raises taxes.

The Northern Virginia economy has already slowed because of the automatic federal cuts known as sequestration, Mr. Corcoran said. He did not see the federal shutdown as giving a political edge to either candidate. “The extremes are pushing both parties at this point,” he said.

Independent analysts said the longer the shutdown lasts, the more it would play to Mr. McAuliffe’s advantage. “He’s looking for a motivator to get out the Democratic vote,” said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. “When people are mad, they tend to vote.”

Mr. Cuccinelli has twice suffered collateral damage from blows beyond his direct control. The first instance concerned a scandal involving the governor’s accepting lavish gifts from a political patron cast a pall over Mr. Cuccinelli, who took gifts from the same donor.

Last month, momentum seemed to shift to Mr. Cuccinelli because of revelations that an electric car company Mr. McAuliffe had run, GreenTech Automotive, was under federal investigation. Mr. Cuccinelli was able to cast Mr. McAuliffe as using his cozy ties as a fund-raiser for Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton to build a personal fortune at the expense of small investors.

On Monday night, as Congress stumbled toward the shutdown, Mr. McAuliffe attended a pair of glittery fund-raisers for his race at the Washington homes of the Clintons and Joe Lockhart, a former White House press secretary. He dodged a reporter outside Mr. Lockhart’s row house — which was on the market last year for $3.4 million —presumably because being placed at the scene would reinforce perceptions that he is a Washington insider.

But now Mr. Cuccinelli is being whipsawed again, this time by the federal shutdown. “He is behind and would like to change the narrative,” said Jack Lechelt, a political scientist at Northern Virginia Community College. “But this massive story is sucking oxygen out of a limited attention arena. It was tough for him to break through before. It’s only getting harder now.”