In the Virginia governor's race, the state attorney general is struggling to overcome his publicized devotion to social issues
At a recent technology forum, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli fielded questions from the kind of voters that can make or break his gubernatorial campaign: Northern Virginia business leaders.
For 45 minutes, Cuccinelli was grilled on his plans for education, the economy and the tech industry. He didn't always say what they wanted to hear -- he admitted his opposition to a transportation tax hike that the business community lobbied hard for and promised to do away with incentives benefitting companies like Microsoft, which hosted the event -- but he was articulate on the issues and expressed a deep knowledge for how Virginia government works.
Cuccinelli, 44, was also asked repeatedly about his devotion to the type of divisive social issues that have so far dominated the headlines in the race. He promised his campaign was focused on creating jobs.
"My track record is one of defending life and families, but I don't overdo this," Cuccinelli said. And there was laughter.
And therein lies Cuccinelli's toughest challenge. When it comes to experience, the former state senator and sitting attorney general clearly has the edge over his opponent, career Democratic fundraiser Terry McAuliffe.
Cuccinelli has deep roots in Virginia while McAuliffe, 56, landed in tony McLean a couple decades ago to be closer to Washington insiders. Cuccinelli has an engineering degree from the University of Virginia and graduated from law school at George Mason University. When he started talking about his past work as a patent lawyer, the room full of tech geeks perked up.
But within his state, Cuccinelli is best known for opposing social and environmental policies close to the hearts of Democrats. He told Virginia colleges they couldn't create policies against LGBT discrimination, clashed with the EPA, sued President Obama over health care reform, subpoenaed a state professor's climate change research and sponsored personhood legislation.
McAuliffe uses these positions to paint Cuccinelli was a bit of wacko.
"We cannot have Virginia featured on late night comedy shows because of extreme attacks on women's health," McAuliffe said at the same technology forum.
The Northern Virginia business community is a critical constituency for Cuccinelli. Their deep pockets financed Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell's successful 2009 campaign and their influence helped him win Fairfax County, a heavily Democratic region where one in seven Virginians reside.
"This was a group of individuals who could tell if a candidate truly understood their issues, and if a candidate was ready to lead on those issues in office," McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin said. "You don't get many opportunities to speak to that many leaders in one place, and we approached [the tech forum] as such: a major opportunity."
Cuccinelli recognizes their importance. Though he didn't support their transportation package, he promised not to undo it. "Frugal Ken" would be a better steward of that money than "Union Terry," he said, referring to McAuliffe's close ties to big labor.
"That is a no brainer comparison. And that's where we have to go make more inroads," Cuccinelli said after the forum. "This is where I grew up. It's where I still live. We're going to fight for every single vote up here."
McAuliffe has rolled out endorsements from a number of former McDonnell backers and Republican business leaders. Cuccinelli must reverse that trend and start picking up their financial backing. Though the race remains a toss-up, McAuliffe has outraised Cuccinelli $10.4 million to $6.5 million. That's a lot more money to air television ads this fall painting Cuccinelli as an extremist.
In his move to pick up moderates, Cuccinelli is further hampered by his newly nominated runningmate, E.W. Jackson, a Chesapeake pastor whose controversial statements against abortion and LGBT issues are already making waves. Del. Dave Albo, a Republican lawmaker who has repeatedly won in a Democratic-leaning Northern Virginia district, warned "that type of Republican philosophy is a tough sell up here."
But Albo also said people who spend time with Cuccinelli quickly start to like him. The Republican nominee must hope business leaders at the forum will do the same.
"The image that is created for him, is so far from what he is. You'd be shocked that he loves rock and roll and you can finish work and go play pool and grab a beer with him," Albo said. "But If he can't raise the kind of money McAuliffe is, how does he go out and explain to everyone that 'What you hear about me isn't me?'"