By John Celock
While his 2013 gubernatorial candidacy divided the Virginia Republican Party, former state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli remains popular heading into a potential second shot at the governorship in 2017.
A Public Policy Poll released Friday shows Cuccinelli, a tea party favorite, with a substantial lead over fellow Virginia Republicans, including former U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, in a hypothetical 2017 gubernatorial primary. Cuccinelli, who served one term as attorney general, narrowly lost the 2013 gubernatorial race to Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) by two percentage points. McAuliffe is barred from seeking a second term in the governor’s mansion.
The poll shows Cuccinelli leading a hypothetical GOP field 37 percent to 16 percent for Cantor, eight percent for both former Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling and former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, seven percent for state Sen. Mark Obenshain and one percent for businessman Pete Snyder. Gillespie narrowly lost a 2014 U.S. Senate bid in Virginia, while Obenshain lost the 2013 attorney general’s race by less than 1,000 votes. Snyder was an unsuccessful candidate for the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor in 2013.
Cuccinelli has long been viewed as one of the most conservative politicians in swing state Virginia and his 2013 candidacy divided the GOP when many expected Bolling, a two term lieutenant governor, to be the 2013 nominee to succeed term limited Gov. Bob McDonnell (R). Bolling had passed on a 2009 gubernatorial candidacy in favor of McDonnell, then the state attorney general, for party unity and a 2013 campaign. Bolling, a moderate Republican, did not challenge Cuccinelli for the GOP nomination and declined a third party challenge to Cuccinelli and McAuliffe.
Cuccinelli had been viewed as a weaker challenger to McAuliffe in the swing state. He surprised many with his last minute surge after trailing the Democrat most of the year. Cuccinelli’s four years as attorney general was marked by a conservative agenda, including battles against Obamacare and abortion rights. During his gubernatorial campaign, he faced criticism from Democrats over his decision to complete his term as attorney general. Previous Virginia attorneys general had stepped down to seek the governorship.
Virginia Republicans have not announced if the party’s 2017 nominees will be selected via a primary or a state convention. The 2013 ticket was picked during a convention, which favored more conservative candidates.
The Virginia Republican Party is left without a presumptive nominee after being shut out of the lieutenant governorship and attorney general’s office in 2013. Virginia’s one term limit on governors typically leaves the holders of the two down ballot offices as likely gubernatorial nominees. The poll indicated that Attorney General Mark Herring leads Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam in a hypothetical Democratic primary 33 percent to nine percent. Northam announced earlier this year that he intended to seek the governorship in 2017, while Herring has not indicated if he’ll also enter the gubernatorial race that year.
While Herring narrowly captured the attorney general’s office in 2013, Northam easily defeated Republican nominee E.W. Jackson, a minister and conservative advocate, by 11 points.
The PPP poll showed Herring running stronger in hypothetical match-ups with potential Republican nominees than Northam.
None of the Republicans have indicated a gubernatorial candidacy, but Cantor has been speculated as a likely candidate since his surprise defeat in a Republican primary last year for reelection to his Richmond area congressional seat. Gillespie has also been viewed as a likely gubernatorial candidate following his strong showing against U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D) last year.
Cuccinelli, who has co-founded an oyster farm since leaving the attorney general’s office, has kept himself active in politics as the president of the Senate Conservatives Fund, which raises money for conservative Republicans seeking U.S. Senate seats. The post could allow Cuccinelli to set up a strong base with conservative Republicans to seek one of two governor’s seats open in 2017.
Cuccinelli is likely to be the most conservative gubernatorial candidate in the nation in 2017. In New Jersey, both of the likely GOP gubernatorial candidates in 2017, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield), are viewed as moderate Republicans.