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What GOP can learn from Cuccinelli's tanking bid in Virginia

By John Avlon, CNN Contributor
updated 8:26 AM EST, Tue November 5, 2013
Conservative Republicans can take a lesson from the extremist -- and failing -- candidacy of Ken Cuccinelli, John Avlon says.
Conservative Republicans can take a lesson from the extremist -- and failing -- candidacy of Ken Cuccinelli, John Avlon says.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Avlon: Ken Cuccinelli appears too extreme for swing voters in Virginia
  • Democrat Terry McAuliffe would be vulnerable against almost any other Republican, he says
  • Avlon: Cuccinelli's candidacy symbolizes trouble GOP faces in 2014, 2016 elections
  • The run to the right shows what not to do nationally and in Virginia, he says

Editor's note: John Avlon, a CNN contributor and senior columnist and executive editor of The Daily Beast, is the author of "Independent Nation" and "Wingnuts." He won the National Society of Newspaper Columnists' award for best online column in 2012.

(CNN) -- Virginia is a cautionary tale for conservatives this year. And those Republicans who always argue that their party wins when it moves further to the right are going to have a lot of explaining to do after Election Day.

Polls show that "teavangelist" Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli is going down to a decisive defeat in the governor's race against an exceptionally flawed Democratic candidate, Terry McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chairman and Clinton fund-raiser.

The reason is simple: Cuccinelli is too extreme for swing voters in Virginia -- and that neatly symbolizes the GOP's problem as it looks to the congressional midterms of 2014 and the presidential campaign of 2016.

John Avlon
John Avlon

The problems have been long brewing in Virginia. Once a Republican bastion, the Old Dominion began to turn from red to purple in 2008 when Barack Obama became the first Democrat to win the state since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. But in true swing state fashion, Virginia turned around and elected conservative Bob McDonnell governor in 2009; he managed to win by 17 points, cloaking his conservatism in a family-friendly demeanor.

Obama won the state again in 2012, buoyed by demographic changes and the increasing wealth in the region around Washington. Nonetheless, a centrist Republican might still have been well-positioned to win Virginia's governorship in this off-year election. But that does not remotely describe Cuccinelli.

A tea party favorite and self-described "Second Amendment-supporting Christian right-to-life home-school dad," Cuccinelli has built a political career on a foundation of strident social conservatism. Proclaiming "homosexuality is wrong," supporting abstinence-only sex education and devoting himself to abortion restrictions as a matter of faith and law, Cuccinelli has been eager to use political office to advance an ideological agenda.

As attorney general he sued to stop the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, challenged the Environmental Protection Agency's fuel-efficiency standards, backed the controversial Arizona illegal immigration law and issued a legal opinion that sexual orientation should not be included in nondiscrimination statutes for the University of Virginia.

His extreme play-to-the-base conservative reputation was only accelerated by the selection at the state convention of E.W. Jackson as his running mate for lieutenant governor. He's an African-American evangelical pastor with a knack for saying things such as the following: Democrats are "anti-Christian, anti-Bible, anti-family, anti-life and anti-God"; "Liberalism and their ideas have done more to kill black folks whom they claim so much to love than the Ku Klux Klan, lynching and slavery and Jim Crow ever did," and "Obama clearly has Muslim sensibilities. He sees the world and Israel from a Muslim perspective."

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Add this all together and you have the most far-right statewide ticket in recent memory.

Not surprisingly, centrists and other swing voters are looking elsewhere.

Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis is polling a respectable 10% -- an indication of the political costs that come from such strident social conservatism, even among fellow travelers on the center-right. Women voters are supporting McAuliffe by 20% -- a cavernous gap that reflects Cuccinelli's social conservative obsession. Against almost any other Republican, McAuliffe would be vulnerable, but not Cuccinelli.

October's GOP-driven government shutdown caused Cuccinelli to play defense, reversing longtime rhetoric by suddenly denouncing the effort to force a delay in Obamacare's implementation and even refusing to be photographed with Sen. Ted Cruz for fear of further alienating swing voters.

At the gubernatorial debates, the defiant culture warrior was reduced to bleating about the importance of bipartisanship and compromise -- laugh lines if you knew the first thing about Cuccinelli's record.

Cuccinelli's problems must be seen side by side with the success of another Republican running for governor -- Chris Christie. The New Jersey incumbent is cruising to re-election by a broad margin in a state where only 20% of voters are registered Republicans. He is narrowly winning nonwhite voters, and winning women by a 20-point margin.

The difference between the two candidates is self-evident -- Christie has governed as an unapologetic centrist Republican with a no-nonsense focus on fighting for fiscal discipline rather than an obsession with social conservatism. He has built cross-aisle coalitions, even on controversial policy proposals, and reached out beyond the base. He puts problem-solving ahead of partisanship or ideology. In other words, Christie is pretty much the opposite of Cuccinelli, and that's why he is winning in an otherwise ugly year for Republicans.

Conservatives will come up with lots of reasons why a swing state such as Virginia seems to be slipping away. But let's cut to the chase -- candidates who specialize only in playing to the base and pushing ideological absolutism lose. Extremes are always ultimately their own side's worst enemy. And Cuccinelli's last desperate attempts to present himself as a bipartisan problem-solver or a libertarian are really just evidence of the political bankruptcy of his position.

For those conservatives who always argue that moving more rigidly to the right is the answer to all the Republican Party's political problems, the toxic Cuccinelli-Jackson ticket is providing an enduring Exhibit A in making the opposite case. It is an example of what not to do -- nationally and especially in must-win swing states such as Virginia.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.

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