Over the Edge With Cooch

Yesterday I wrote that the earliest stirrings about the GOP presidential nomination contest in 2016 seemed to signal a field even more extreme than the 2012 circus cast, what with Ted Cruz and Rand Paul all but running already and Marco Rubio being treated as a “moderate. ” But now it gets worse: according to a David Catanese article at TNR, the Republican nominee for Governor of Virginia already has his own sites on 2016, and could be ideologically dressed for success:

[W]hen Ken Cuccinelli wakes up in the morning, he looks in the mirror and sees a man on the road to the White House—or at least a candidate of presidential timber. Though he’s more likely looking toward 2020, after he’s (theoretically) completed his first term as governor, it’s not inconceivable that he’s arming himself for the ideological gunfight that’s sure to break out in the 2016 Republican primary.

If indeed he’s able to dispatch former Democratic National Committee chairman and uber-fundraiser Terry McAuliffe just as Republicans are enduring a wrenching period of soul-searching about their identity, his timing could be impeccable. He has the social conservative street cred of Rick Santorum, speaks the libertarian language of Rand Paul, and brandishes the constitutional acumen of Ted Cruz. And if he captures the governorship, odds are he’ll have a longer list of tangible achievements in two years than Marco Rubio racks up in five.

This isn’t just Catanese idly speculating; Cooch is not only golden in Christian Right/Tea Party circles for his staunch defense of sodomy laws and legal assaults on Obamacare–he’s also been working the Iowa circuit.

Conservative Iowa radio talk show host Steve Deace, who has already had Cuccinelli on his program at least three times, said he first saw evidence of the attorney general’s ascent back in December 2011, when he served as a panelist on Mike Huckabee’s Fox News presidential forum…

“He is clearly a rising star in the conservative movement. He’s really liked by a lot of the right to work, Ron Paul, Rand Paul libertarian crowd. If he can bring the two camps (of conservatives and libertarians) together, you are a very viable national candidate in the Republican Party.”

Bob Vander Plaats, an influential social conservative who heads Iowa’s Family Leader, called himself a “big fan” of Cuccinelli’s and said he should definitely keep his 2016 options open. “Cuccinelli’s bold, he doesn’t back away from what he believes and I think people really appreciate that about him,” said Vander Plaats, who endorsed both Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, the two previous winners of the Iowa caucus. “If a country calls, you’ve got to be ready to respond to that call.”

Last spring, Cuccinelli was the keynote speaker at the annual Iowa Republican Party gala and then later dined privately with Rep. Steve King, according to a Hawkeye State source. In 2010, he flew around the state to stump for the GOP’s attorney general candidate. Deace said the attention has paid dividends with the most dedicated conservative foot soldiers, whose affinity for Cuccinelli falls in a tier just below Huckabee and Santorum. “If you put a bunch of Iowa Republican activists in the room … just as many would know Ken Cuccinelli as Bobby Jindal,” he said.

Obviously vanquishing Terry McAuliffe this November would great burnish Cooch’s reputation, particularly since conservative media would like to have someone other than the semi-heretic Chris Christie to talk about before and after this off-year election day. Now it’s possible that articles like Catanese’s will force Cuccinelli to foreswear immediate presidential ambitions, or to aim for the vice-presidency (since Virginia remains a crucial state for Republicans). But in a political universe where people like Steve Deace and Bob Vander Plaats are a much bigger force than a lot of those who populate party “elite” circles and who may consider Cooch a bit of a joke, it’s hardly crazy to imagine him wowing wingnuts on the Pizza Ranch Circuit in Iowa. He’s a lot slicker than Rick Santorum, and unlike the Pennsylvanian, Cooch may still have some gas in the tank.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.