Clearing the field, or narrowing his options? Ken Cuccinelli withdrew from consideration for the Republican nomination to run for governor of Virginia over the weekend, citing his efforts to get Ted Cruz the GOP nomination for president. The move clears the field for Ed Gillespie, but may also leave an opening to Gillespie’s right:
Ken Cuccinelli II, the polarizing former Virginia attorney general, said Saturday that he will not run again for governor, scrambling the contest and opening the door for a far-right conservative to vie for the Republican nomination in 2017.
An active surrogate for Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential bid, Cuccinelli has been traveling the country in support of the senator from Texas while overseeing the campaign’s delegate-selection process in Virginia.
“I made my choice here, and it was to go all in on the Cruz campaign,” he told The Washington Post in an interview at the state Republican convention here. “There’s only so much that makes sense on an individual and family basis. . . . It’s better for our family not to do both.”
Both Cuccinelli and Gillespie came close in statewide elections. Cuccinelli nearly beat Terry McAuliffe in 2013 for the seat, coming less than three points (45.23%/47.75%) and 53,000 votes away from winning. That race was complicated by the Libertarian Party candidate Robert Sarvis, who got over 146,000 votes and 6.5% of the popular vote. Gillespie came even closer in 2014 against popular incumbent Mark Warner for the Senate seat, losing by a single percentage point and less than 17,000 votes.
It’s not the first opportunity Cuccinelli has turned down, either. Two months ago, he passed on an opportunity to win a spot on Virginia’s Supreme Court:
Cuccinelli may take aim at the Senate in 2017. Tim Kaine comes up for re-election, assuming he doesn’t end up as Hillary Clinton’s running mate. Cuccinelli could benefit from having Gillespie on the top of the ticket in that election, especially if Kaine’s off of it, as it would unite the various factions of the GOP within the state with both men on the ballot. Their turnout could complement each other and keep Democrats from breaking through.
Gillespie has to feel some relief at this move. Even if this prompts a challenge from the Right, it won’t have nearly the same draw as Cuccinelli, who has spent years strengthening the conservative coalitions in the state. Gillespie’s 2014 performance was so unexpectedly strong without much help from national GOP organizations that he may be able to rally the majority of Republicans to his banner, especially without Cuccinelli opposing him. They may make a pretty effective one-two punch, assuming they both can unite the Virginia GOP between them in 2017.
Addendum: And in 2016, for that matter. I interviewed both men for my book Going Red about their experiences in their elections. They have different perspectives on the challenges for Republicans in Virginia, but they both underscore the need to effectively campaign in northern Virginia to win the state. Both men will be essential to engage for the next Republican presidential nominee, whether it’s Cruz or Donald Trump, in order to make connections to those voters that will shape the turnout model in November 2016.