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Opinion: "Ken Cuccinelli appears to have learned nothing from the McDonnell campaign’s restraint on social issues."

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST

In fall of 2009, toward the end of the Virginia gubernatorial campaign, Democratic nominee Creigh Deeds' team stumbled upon what it thought was a gold mine: Bob McDonnell, the Republican nominee, had in 1989 written a thesis at Regent University in which he railed against feminists, "cohabitors, homosexuals [and] fornicators."

It seemed perfect fodder for a Democrat running anywhere but the reddest of states: Here was a Republican writing like an antagonist on "The West Wing," literally suggesting that women should get back in the kitchen.

Deeds' campaign, having lost a brief summertime lead, decided to make the thesis a central part of its campaign strategy. And then something went wrong: It didn't take. McDonnell's lead dwindled initially, but didn't vanish. He continued to stress both the irrelevance of the thesis and a McDonnell administration's focus on economic issues over social ones. He sailed to an 18-point victory.

Four years later, Ken Cuccinelli, who was elected attorney general by a similar margin, appears to have learned nothing from candidate McDonnell's restraint on social issues. While McDonnell was emphasizing job creation in early 2010, Cuccinelli was trying to intimidate climate scientists and gay-friendly state universities. The governor and the attorney general did meet in the middle in early 2012, when McDonnell was empowered enough by Republican legislative gains to focus on social issues again. Who can forget Governor Ultrasound? The pair also teamed up on the establishment of unnecessary laws targeting abortion clinics. Unlike McDonnell, however, Cuccinelli has made clear that his reactionary social positions will be front and center for the campaign.

In the spring, Cuccinelli attracted widespread derision for his defense in court of Virginia's sodomy laws, which were struck down in 2003, along with other such laws, by the United States Supreme Court. The law made felons of any two consenting adults engaged in oral or anal sex. Cuccinelli insisted that he was only defending the law to protect children. His appeal was roundly rejected, and a wiser man would have dropped the issue. In mid-July, however, Cuccinelli was at it again, launching a campaign website touting his attempts to enforce the law. Cuccinelli again insisted that he was trying to protect children from sexual predators and, by extension, implying Terry McAuliffe didn't care about said children. But it's difficult to square that with Cuccinelli's past statements that homosexual acts are "intrinsically wrong," or his blocking of a 2003 effort that would bring the state law in line with the Supreme Court decision. Earlier this month, U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts denied Cuccinelli's request for a stay of the March lower-court ruling striking down Virginia's law specifically.

This isn't Cuccinelli's only embrace of his inner Pat Robertson. It wasn't Cuccinelli's decision to share the gubernatorial ticket with Chesapeake minister and anti-gay rights activist E.W. Jackson. But the attorney general's obsession over the sex lives of consenting adults aligns him with rather than distances him from Jackson, who has said homosexuality poisons culture and argued that gays and lesbians are "very sick people psychologically, mentally and emotionally."

During his first debate with Democratic rival Terry McAuliffe in late July, Cuccinelli was confronted with his past statements that LGBTQ people are "self-destructive" and "soulless." He responded: "My personal beliefs about the personal challenges of homosexuality haven't changed." (I guess it's kind of comforting to know that being "soulless" is a mere personal challenge.) The suggestion that these beliefs are simply personal seems somewhat disingenuous when Cuccinelli is campaigning on his desire to charge consenting adults with felonies. Things worsened around the same time when Politico unearthed a 2008 interview with Style Weekly in which the candidate said laws against extramarital sex "ought to stay on the books."

And then there was that weird moment when Cuccinelli announced his intention to boycott the longstanding League of Women Voters debate, on the grounds that it was a "left-wing, stacked debate" with "MSNBC … running it," an apparent reference to former MSNBC correspondent Norah O'Donnell's status as planned moderator.

Anything can happen between now and November, but Cuccinelli's lead has slowly but surely disappeared. McAuliffe's average lead is within the margin of error, but it's a far cry from Cuccinelli's 10-point lead in a Washington Post poll taken earlier in the race.

Between the abortion-bills fallout and the deepening scandal over improper gifts, McDonnell isn't sitting pretty these days. But on the campaign trail in 2009, he knew enough not to run as the kind of Republican who scares away undecided voters. Cuccinelli, meanwhile, seems to be doubling down on his social conservatism as Election Day nears. It may look good to the conservative base, but in Virginia, the conservative base alone no longer wins elections. S

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Zack Budryk is a freelance writer in Woodbridge and a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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