Republican Ken Cuccinelli, right, who is running for governor of Virginia,… (Steve Helber / Associated…)
RICHMOND, Va. — Ken Cuccinelli is running for governor, not Congress, but the Virginia Republican is struggling to dodge the political fallout from Capitol Hill.
His campaign in this crucial battleground state is in danger of becoming the first political casualty of the federal government shutdown, which Americans largely blame on Republicans.
With the election just weeks away, Cuccinelli's poll numbers have tumbled since federal agencies were closed Oct. 1. The conservative state attorney general was already lagging, but he went from within striking distance of a vulnerable Democrat to trailing by 8 to 10 percentage points in three independent polls.
As the candidate, a tea party favorite, seeks to distance himself from fellow activists in Congress, national Republican leaders are worried that a key office they expected to hold in a closely watched election is slipping away.
They also fear the shutdown could tarnish the party's brand ahead of next year's midterm election.
Not all Republican candidates are suffering because of the shutdown. In Democratic New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie, a GOP nonconformist, is positioned to cruise to reelection.
Christie is conservative, but he has not allied himself with the tea party. Instead, he has focused on issues that most concern voters, such as the runaway costs of public employee benefits, and he is moving ahead with President Obama's healthcare law. The New Jersey governor shows little regard for how his policies affect score cards with activists on the right.
"Republicans should think about these things as they ponder who to support in 2016," said strategist Steve Schmidt, who ran Arizona Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign in 2008. Schmidt sees the Virginia race as a cautionary tale for the party. "You have a campaign that has been unable to transcend its ideological baggage, running against someone who would have been beatable with almost any other conceivable candidate."
Cuccinelli also has the misfortune to be running in the state with the most federal workers. Analysts say the uneasiness many voters had with Cuccinelli's tea party brand of Republicanism has solidified into outright opposition.
"The shutdown is hurting Cuccinelli," said Quentin Kidd, a professor of political science at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va. For voters on the fence, he said, "it helped them make a decision. They thought, 'If that is the kind of thing we'd be looking at with Ken Cuccinelli, then I am not interested.'"
Establishment Republicans are frustrated. The Democratic nominee, Terry McAuliffe, is a former chairman of the national party and is saddled with baggage.
His business dealings have long attracted unflattering media attention, including allegations that he cashed in on his Clinton-era political connections to grow his personal fortune. At the Democratic National Committee, his fundraising tactics pushed ethical boundaries. He's been compared to a carnival barker and a used car salesman.
But in a part of the country that has drifted from solidly red to solidly purple, polls suggest the statewide electorate would sooner vote for a candidate who may strike them as smarmy than one allied with the Republican Party's most extreme politicians.
"I don't like McAuliffe, but I really don't like Cuccinelli," said Cindy Freese, 59, a retired reinsurance executive in Alexandria who is registered as an independent. Her husband is a federal employee poised to miss his mid-month paycheck. Freese said she would "absolutely" vote for a moderate Republican for governor, "but there aren't any anymore."
Virginia's electoral landscape, like that of the country overall, has shifted amid an influx of immigrants and the growth of diverse suburbs. In last year's presidential election, the Obama campaign used those changing demographics to its advantage, microtargeting voters with messaging that appealed to them. McAuliffe has recruited some of the data whizzes and strategists behind that effort to replicate it in Virginia.
The Cuccinelli campaign represents the traditional approach. The candidate is the kind of firebrand conservative whom party activists believe energizes voters in the style of Ronald Reagan. As attorney general, he fought to block Obama's healthcare law. A climate change skeptic, he started an investigation into a University of Virginia scientist whose research warned of a rise in temperatures. He has condemned homosexuality and sought to reinstate anti-sodomy laws rejected by the courts.
That record is not playing well with many Virginians uneasy with the rigid ideologies at the root of the shutdown. At a University of Richmond forum last week, Cuccinelli avoided much of it.