If history is any indication, Virginia Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II’s days in office should be numbered.
Mr. Cuccinelli, the Republican front-runner in this fall’s gubernatorial race, likely will become the state’s seventh-consecutive elected attorney general to square off in a general election for governor.
The previous six elected attorneys general all resigned in the final year of their terms to concentrate on campaigning, and the past two — including now-Gov. Bob McDonnell in 2009 — quit in February, allowing them to skirt a state law that prohibits fundraising during the General Assembly session by state officials running for state office.
Such a move could help Mr. Cuccinelli keep up with Terry McAuliffe, the big-spending Democratic front-runner, but the outspoken Republican insists he will finish out his term and that he has plenty of work left to be done.
“When I was running for attorney general, both I and my opponent promised to serve out all four years,” Mr. Cuccinelli said. “I didn’t run for attorney general to run for governor; I ran to be the best attorney general that I could be.”
Since announcing his candidacy for governor in late 2011, Mr. Cuccinelli has dismissed suggestions that he should resign to focus on a race that likely will come down to himself, Mr. McAuliffe and potentially Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican weighing a run as an independent that likely would tip the odds in Mr. McAuliffe’s favor.
It is considered a tradition in Virginia for the attorney general to step down when running for governor, with political observers and the candidates themselves often saying that the job’s responsibilities — which include providing legal advice to state officials and representing the state in court cases — are greater than those of a lieutenant governor or lawmaker, and thus cannot be effectively balanced with campaigning.
“The office of the attorney general is the commonwealth’s law firm and demands a full-time attorney general,” Mr. McDonnell, a Republican, said in 2009 when announcing his resignation, which took effect Feb. 20 of that year. “To remain in this office while running a gubernatorial campaign wouldn’t have been fair to you, the taxpayer.”
While Mr. McDonnell called his decision “the right and proper thing to do,” past attorneys general have received criticism from opponents no matter what they do.
Candidates who have tried to balance the office with campaigning have been accused of neglecting their duties as attorney general, while those who resigned were accused of abandoning them entirely.
The latter accusation appears to carry more weight with Mr. Cuccinelli, who says he plans to take an active role in the 46-day General Assembly session which kicked off last week, and that he has other responsibilities, which include providing guidance on the state’s implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act.
Mr. Cuccinelli, who has vehemently opposed the act, made waves last week by suggesting that religious objectors to its mandate that employers’ insurance plans cover contraceptives might “go to jail” as a show of civil disobedience.
“I’m certainly not advocating that people go to jail, but religious liberty is why a lot of people came to this country,” he said when reflecting on the comments. “If our government is driving so many people to be contemplating this kind of civil disobedience, I think there’s a good reason to double check and ask, ‘Have we gone too far here?’”
Mr. Cuccinelli’s agenda for the assembly session appears less controversial, as it includes bills aiming to tighten laws against human trafficking, make it easier for political candidates to get onto the ballot, allow future attorneys general to present evidence on behalf of wrongly convicted criminals, and stamp out Medicaid fraud.
Political analysts suggest that staying in office is not likely to hinder Mr. Cuccinelli in the next few months, as he will not have a challenger in the primary. Fellow GOP candidate Tareq Salahi announced Monday he would run for governor as an independent, rather than compete in June’s state Republican Party convention.
Remaining in office could even increase Mr. Cuccinelli’s visibility and provide attention that he is unlikely to receive solely on the campaign trail, said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
“If you are actually in office, there are actions you can take and press you can get that you might not get from just running a campaign,” he said. “It kind of becomes this double-barrel media effect. I think that’s a clear benefit, but the fundraising thing is kind of the problem.”
Mr. Cuccinelli’s term as attorney general has been notable for highly publicized lawsuits he filed against the federal government on the health care overhaul and the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases — issues which Democrats hope to use against him.
“Ken Cuccinelli has already spent three years using his taxpayer-funded office as a launching pad for his divisive ideological agenda. Now he wants to be a part-time attorney general while he campaigns for another job,” state Democratic Party spokesman Brian Coy said. “Virginians deserve better than a governor who puts his political agenda ahead of their best interests.”
Analysts argue that eventually, Mr. Cuccinelli will have to contend with the fundraising might of Mr. McAuliffe, a wealthy businessman and former Democratic National Committee chairman who spent $8.3 million on his way to losing the 2009 Democratic gubernatorial primary.
His primary spending was more than his two Democratic opponents combined and nearly triple the $3 million that Mr. Cuccinelli spent in his attorney general’s bid — a race that he won despite being outspent by Democrat Stephen C. Shannon.
Dan Palazzolo, a political-science professor at the University of Richmond, said Mr. Cuccinelli is unlikely to face much judgment from voters over his decision alone, but that balancing work and the campaign could prove especially difficult if Mr. Bolling decides to mount a third-party challenge down the stretch.
“Bill Bolling is not very happy and could make some problems for him,” Mr. Palazzolo said. “These rules of thumb are never hard and fast, but I think each politician needs to make a decision.”
Mr. Cuccinelli said he doesn’t foresee any problems. He argued that Virginia is one of the few states, if not the only one, where attorneys general routinely step down while seeking higher office.
He said he has consulted several attorneys general who have won governor’s seats, including Pennsylvania’s Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, and all of them told him that campaigning while in office is completely manageable.
“Whether I stay or go, Democrats are going to criticize me,” Mr. Cuccinelli said. “I’d rather they criticize me for keeping my word.”