My views on marijuana legalization are evolving, says ... Ken Cuccinelli

Via Reason, a big deal potentially for two reasons. One: It’s not unusual for a candidate who identifies predominantly as a libertarian, like Gary Johnson, to endorse legalization. It is unusual for a guy who’s more closely associated with mainstream conservatism, albeit of the tea-party wing, to signal he’s keeping an open mind. As I was reading the story, I was trying to come up with the names of prominent Republicans who support lifting the ban on weed and I drew a blank. There must be some (I’m not including Tom Tancredo since he’s no longer in Congress), but it’s interesting to me that it’s easier to call to mind big-name GOPers who back gay marriage, like Dick Cheney and Ken Mehlman, than it is those who support legal marijuana. The polls don’t really explain that, either; if you believe Gallup, support for legalization is now basically at parity with support for prohibition. (If you believe Quinnipiac, there’s actually majority support to legalize it.) Lots of political space here for Cuccinelli to make his mark if he’s so inclined, in other words, although it sounds like he isn’t — yet.

Two: The moral of the story on immigration reform is that demographic realities have forced the GOP to consider ideas that were anathema just five years ago. It’s not just Latino voters from whom the party needs more, though. Romney narrowly won voters aged 40-64 on election day and won handily among voters 65 and over, but was roundly crushed by The One in the 18-39 group. Per Gallup, 18-29-year-olds support marijuana legalization to the tune of 60 percent. If you’re a famously conservative Republican running for governor in a purple state won by Obama, you’re naturally worried about the youth vote carrying Democrats to victory in a close election. Time to maneuver:

“I’m not sure about Virginia’s future [in terms of marijuana legalization],” the newspaper quoted Cuccinelli saying. “But I and a lot of people are watching Colorado and Washington to see how it plays out.”

Cuccinelli’s marijuana comments surprised U.Va. political science professor Larry Sabato, whose class Cuccinelli address.

Sabato noted “Cuccinelli stressed he wouldn’t be recommending changes anytime soon. But he praised states such as Colorado for experimenting with marihuana legalization, saying this was federalism in action. He said twice his views were ‘evolving” on the subject.”

“The students were as surprised as I was,” Sabato added, observing that based on their reactions “his views made him more appealing to them.”

Federalism is indeed the path to striking a bargain with younger voters on liberal social policies they support but which social conservatives frown upon, and needless to say it’s a comfortable fit for Cuccinelli’s advocacy for states’ rights. The GOP’s problem is that if they start flipping on things like pot and gay marriage, they risk bleeding away older voters even while they’re picking up younger ones. Federalism might be a way to maximize gains with the latter while minimizing losses from the former. Rubio appears to be betting on that too: He told BuzzFeed a few days ago that while he supports traditional marriage, he opposes the Federal Marriage Amendment on federalism grounds. Even Obama is a cafeteria federalist on certain hot-button social issues that could pose problems for his party. His official stance on gay marriage, remember, is that he supports it but that the states should decide. And while he continues to crack down on marijuana users, he did nod at federalism in December when he said the DOJ will go easy on enforcing federal drug regulations in states like Colorado that have legalized the drug.

Exit question: Where will the two parties be on marijuana relative to each other in 2016? Will the Dem nominee fully “evolve” on weed, a la O on gay marriage, and embrace legalization or will he/she hedge? And if he/she does, will the GOP nominee embrace the federalist approach to try to steal some Democratic thunder with younger voters?