Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli

Ken Cuccinelli, the attorney general, is now the all-but-official Republican nominee for governor. He outmaneuvered two fellow Republicans: the one who wants the job and the one who holds it. Cuccinelli made it look so easy.

Ken Cuccinelli ate Bill Bolling’s lunch, mussed Bob McDonnell’s hair and gave Terry McAuliffe an excuse to talk about someone other than himself.

Cuccinelli, the attorney general, is now the all-but-official Republican nominee for governor. He outmaneuvered two fellow Republicans: the one who wants the job and the one who holds it. Cuccinelli made it look so easy.

Independence counts for a lot in politics, particularly if your opponents are plodders.

Bolling, the lieutenant governor, and McDonnell had a deal: Bolling deferred to McDonnell for the 2009 GOP gubernatorial nomination. It would be Bolling’s next year. McDonnell would see to it, pledging support in many forms: visibility, cash, organization, contacts, and advice.

But Bolling and McDonnell forgot to invite Cuccinelli to the party, leaving him free to crash it. Did he ever. Initially coy about his ambition, Cuccinelli declared for governor barely halfway through McDonnell’s term.

But it wasn’t the first time Cuccinelli cut in front of Bolling on the buffet line.

In June, Cuccinelli’s buddies on the Republican Party’s governing body switched the nominating system from a primary to a convention. It’s an insider’s game dominated by folks like Cuccinelli: gun enthusiasts, tea partiers, abortion foes, and property-rightists.

Bolling made three mistakes: He believed in waiting his turn. He thought he’d actually get it. And he trusted the other fella.

Where Bolling comes from, this is standard operating procedure.

In central Virginia, Republicans don’t run, they’re recruited. It’s the anti-competitive tradition from which Tom Bliley, Eric Cantor, Bill Janis, Jimmie Massie and others emerged: Be patient. Do as you’re told. We’ll call you when we need you.

It’s efficient, keeping a handful of political operatives fully employed. It’s usually tidy, minimizing but not eliminating Republican-on-Republican feuding. But it promotes inbreeding, deadening the survival instinct.

Bolling may have seen Cuccinelli coming but wasn’t worried. After all, the affable insurance executive had the ultimate insurance policy: the full backing of McDonnell, titular head of the Virginia GOP. Bolling wasn’t covered for the 100-year storm that is Hurricane Ken.

The Bolling-McDonnell arrangement was supposed to prevent the very thing on which Cuccinelli thrives: risk. For Cuccinelli, it has produced such rewards as national notoriety and entrée to voter groups usually off-limits to Republicans.

McDonnell groused about Barack Obama’s health care reform. Cuccinelli challenged it in federal court, albeit unsuccessfully. McDonnell danced around anti-discrimination protections for gay public employees. Cuccinelli put his foot down, saying safeguards are illegal.

Cuccinelli is tough on crime, but tougher in arguing for remedies for wrongful prosecutions. He howls on behalf of consumer rights, and channels populist Democrat Henry Howell, suggesting that electric utilities — from which he’s collected nearly $100,000 in campaign contributions — rip off their customers.

Cuccinelli’s victory for the nomination — one in which he barely fired a shot — is another defeat for McDonnell.

It comes less than a month after McDonnell failed to deliver Virginia for Mitt Romney and about a month before the final full General Assembly session of his four-year term. It’s a session in which a governor’s relevance typically fades.

But McDonnell may be teetering on irrelevance, having seen the guy he set up as Virginia’s chief jobs officer suddenly in need of one. Bolling would build on McDonnell’s legacy. Now, McDonnell’s legacy may be that he hasn’t one.

House Republicans, who will defend their seats on a ticket led by Cuccinelli, will look to him for cues, hoping he advances a legislative program they can run on rather than run from.

They may take heart in his suggestion the GOP dial back its crusade against abortion — never mind that he cheerfully bullied the State Board of Health into adopting lawmakers’ idea: hospital-like construction standards for all abortion clinics that, they say, will put them out of business.

McAuliffe is certain to cite the abortion-clinic controversy as evidence Cuccinelli is out of touch; that he’s too conservative for an increasingly purple state twice carried by Obama.

But that assumes McAuliffe, the consummate carnival barker, can change the subject — from himself. Bolling’s refusal to endorse Cuccinelli — the former depicts the latter as extreme, though their views are very similar — is an opportunity for McAuliffe to define Cuccinelli as a menace.

However, a lot of voters may not pay a lot of attention. Turnout falls sharply from presidential to gubernatorial years. This led to the McDonnell landslide in 2009 and could help Republicans hold the governorship in 2013.

Besides, the GOP may have a secret weapon: McAuliffe, the Democrats’ Cuccinelli.

Contact Jeff E. Schapiro at (804) 649-6814. His column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Watch his video column Thursday on Times-Dispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter.com/ @RTDSchapiro. Listen to his analysis 8:33 a.m. Friday on WCVE (88.9 FM).

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