Ken Cuccinelli warns of enthusiasm drop-off among Tea Party, conservatives

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Virginia Republican gubernatorial nominee Ken Cuccinelli said Thursday that he’s worried enthusiasm among conservative activists — his most ardent supporters — has dissipated just as he's preparing for the final months of a high-stakes election.

In an interview with conservative media outlet Newsmax, Cuccinelli said the Tea Party is “worn out or depressed” in parts of Virginia and that it's having an effect on his campaign.

“In some parts of Virginia, the Tea Party has been not quite staying home, but pretty close to it,” Cuccinelli said. “That’s a problem when principle-based voters won’t come out to volunteer.”

Tea Party and conservative activism peaked in Virginia in 2009 when it helped elect Cuccinelli attorney general in a Republican sweep of statewide offices. The party’s victories that year were seen as the early ripples of a nationwide tidal wave that ultimately helped boost Republican victories in the 2010 state and federal elections.

In another sign of their strength, Virginia conservatives last year staged a coup within the state GOP and forced the party to switch its nominating format from a primary to a convention, a move that favored Cuccinelli. The maneuver by Cuccinelli’s backers ultimately pushed Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, the establishment favorite, out of the running to replace Gov. Bob McDonnell.

“I guess I just have such high standards and expectations from the conservative grass roots, and I know we’ve just got to continually do more,” Cuccinelli said.

Conservative enthusiasm for Cuccinelli was to supposed to give him an edge against Democrat Terry McAuliffe. While Democrats coalesced around McAuliffe, a career fundraiser, their excitement has been largely measured by their opposition to Cuccinelli, who they view as a conservative ideologue and a culture warrior.

Democrats are not without their own enthusiasm problems. A string of bad headlines about McAuliffe’s former business, GreenTech Automotive, has undercut his business credentials and raised ethical concerns about his access to White House officials while he was trying to secure visas for his company's foreign investors.

Long-time Virginia Democratic strategist Dave “Mudcat” Saunders told Time magazine on Thursday that a Securities and Exchange Commission probe of GreenTech could further hurt McAuliffe's relations with the party's rank and file.

“In a low-turnout election, which I fully expect this one to be, the greatest political tool is enthusiastic support [on] the ground,” Saunders said. “How Terry is going to regain that enthusiasm in less than 100 days is beyond me.”

Cuccinelli told Newsmax he still believes he has more boots on the ground than McAuliffe, who in turn holds a significant fundraising advantage over the Republican. But if Cuccinelli’s troops fail to turnout in the same numbers as 2009, it could signal a problem for Republicans nationwide ahead of the 2014 mid-term elections.

The waning enthusiasm may be the result of election fatigue — and not the candidates themselves — in a battleground state that just 10 months ago endured a withering fight between President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney. Virginia's recent anointment as a swing state has only intensified political action in a state that already votes every year.

The Cuccinelli-McAuliffe match-up in which both sides are already flooding the airwaves with attack ads also is likely to turn off some voters. 

“We really need more people coming out,” Cuccinelli warned. “And by that I don’t just mean on Saturday, I mean every day.”

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