12/07/11: Beyond the announcement

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

IN 2009, this newspaper’s editorial board, along with several others across the state, warned Virginians what the election of Ken Cuccinelli as attorney general would mean.

“To put it politely,” The Pilot editorial board wrote, “Cuccinelli’s election would bring embarrassment to Virginia, instability to the state’s law firm and untold harm to the long list of people who don’t fit his personal definition of morality.”

Despite such warnings, Cuccinelli cruised to victory, helped in part by a weak Democratic opponent.

For the past two years, he has pursued his agenda, from suing the federal government over health care reform and the Environmental Protection Agency, to issuing letters to Virginia’s colleges and universities telling them that they could not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. He has become a national media darling , most recently appearing as one of three attorneys general to question GOP presidential candidates.

Last week’s announcement that he intends to seek his party’s nomination for governor was not unexpected in many quarters. Some cheer the move; others, like second-term Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, are not happy.

Bolling and Bob McDonnell made a deal in 2008 that allowed McDonnell to run unopposed for governor in 2009. In exchange, Bolling was made a member of the cabinet — chief jobs creation officer — and heir apparent for a run in 2013. In the wake of Cuccinelli’s announcement, McDonnell reaffirmed his commitment to Bolling’s campaign.

Thinking that Cuccinelli was having too much fun as attorney general, I was among those who didn’t expect him to jump into the gubernatorial race.

After all, Virginia’s governors serve a single, four-year term. With Virginia’s off-year elections, making the move to national office generally means that governors have to resign midterm or be out of office for a year in order to run. Cuccinelli likes challenges — and a 2014 campaign against U.S. Sen. Mark Warner seemed to be the perfect challenge for him.

In the wake of November’s election results, 2013 just became too tempting for Cuccinelli.

The Republican Party is in complete control of the House of Delegates, with a veto-proof majority of 67 seats. The state Senate is evenly divided at 20 from each party, but with Bolling as the tie-breaker, Republicans will control it, too, a lawsuit filed by the Democratic Party notwithstanding.

Ideologically, Bolling and Cuccinelli are nearly identical. The difference between the two seems to be their willingness to use the bully pulpit to implement their policies.

We saw it in Cuccinelli when he was in the state Senate, and it has continued in his current position. As governor, he would not have to nibble around the edges of remaking Virginia in his own image. With the help of Del. Bob Marshall, who has already introduced a personhood bill similar to that rejected by the Mississippi electorate, and Sen.-elect Dick Black, who distributed plastic fetuses to his colleagues when he served in the House, there is nothing to stop him.

Except maybe history.

Since 1977, Virginia has elected governors from the party opposite of the president’s. No one is really sure why, but the pattern has held. If Barack Obama is re-elected next year, it is likely that the GOP candidate for governor will win in 2013. Democrats would have to have a strong candidate to make breaking the trend a possibility.

But that begs the question: what Democrat would want to be governor when Republicans control the legislature, especially if that Democrat lacks the coattails — or a strong enough running mate — to elect a Democratic lieutenant governor?

If a Republican is elected as president, it increases the likelihood of a Democratic governor in 2013. At this time, 2009 gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe is the only potential Democratic candidate. Could Cuccinelli be the candidate to break the trend?

Perhaps Cuccinelli, with his charm and his smarts, doesn’t care who wins the presidency next year and is, instead, setting up the match he really wants, on his own terms: one against Warner.

It is no secret that Warner is not happy in the Senate. His style is that of an executive, and the slow pace of the Senate, with its arcane rules, seems ill-suited for his talents. A win by Cuccinelli over Bolling in the primary might be just enticing enough to persuade Warner to run.

And if he wants it, I’ve no doubt Warner would be the Democratic nominee for governor in 2013. Another run for governor — Warner was elected in 2001 — would be the perfect launching pad for his national ambitions. A Cuccinelli-Warner contest would be the most visible election in the nation.

Careful what you wish for, Mr. Cuccinelli, because you might just get it.