TheDC Interview: Ken Cuccinelli On Making The Senate More Conservative
Ken Cuccinelli, the former Republican attorney general of Virginia, is the new president of the Senate Conservatives Fund, the political group known for its frequent run-ins with the Republican establishment.
In a recent interview with The Daily Caller, Cuccinelli reflected on the primary battles this season, his favorite Senate candidates and what it’s like to no longer be a candidate himself anymore.
Cuccinelli — after losing the Virginia’s governor race to Democrat Terry McAuliffe last year — signed up in June to lead the conservative group, which often supports conservative challengers to Republican incumbents.
“Their mission is one I very much appreciate,” Cuccinelli told TheDC. “That being primarily to move the U.S. Senate in a more conservative direction. It doesn’t bother me that sometimes that brings us into conflict with already-sitting Republicans.”
“I think some people are a little more uncomfortable with that,” he continued. “I’ve always been one of those folks who think competition is actually a good thing. And if we’re going to preach it as a party, we need to practice it.”
Conservative Challengers Have Struggled This Year
Over the last year, Cuccinelli’s group endorsed GOP primary challengers to Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran and Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, among others. Not a single challenger won.
That makes this the first cycle since the tea party movement burst onto the scene that conservatives failed to take out an incumbent Republican senator.
Asked why he thinks all these incumbent senators won, Cuccinelli pointed out that the incumbents did not all win by huge margins.
“At the end of the day, statistically, I think, and now I’m talking in the whole group, it was pretty lucky on their part,” Cuccinelli said of the incumbent victors. “It was a statistical anomaly.”
He argued that these challengers, even though they didn’t win, forced incumbents to talk about issues that matter to conservatives.
“It is hard to argue that the conservative movement is not having success,” Cuccinelli said. “We are moving the debate in a more limited government direction. And in a more rule of law direction, a more conservative direction.”
As Cuccinelli noted, conservatives did take out a high-profile target in the House.
“When Eric Cantor lost, being the only majority leader in history to lose a primary,” he said, “that was pretty, and still is, earth-shattering in Virginia and across the country.”
Cuccinelli said donors to the Senate Conservatives Fund are not deterred by the string of Senate primary losses. They have a “fairly large membership that’s willing to keep donating, more or less regardless of the outcomes,” he said.
“They see this as a long-term contest, not one election,” Cuccinelli said. “And I’ve been very impressed with the membership. It’s a collection of small donors. Good news or bad, they really tend to stick it out and stay the course.”
“It goes beyond the races,” Cuccinelli continued. “Obviously, the ultimate goal is about the policies. And we are seeing success there. We’re happy with that. And we’re going to keep pressing ahead.”
Cuccinelli, like many conservatives, is clearly still sore about the Mississippi Senate contest, where conservative Chris McDaniel (who SCF endorsed) won more votes than Cochran in the first round of voting, but lost the subsequent run-off. McDaniel is still contesting the results, pointing out how Cochran’s campaign convinced Democrats to come out and vote.
“Even the Cochran folks concede that Chris McDaniel won among the Republicans,” Cuccinelli said. “And I heard one person put it: they stole the election fair and square.”
He warned that these Republican incumbents can’t take the conservative base for granted in the general election.
“If you want to attack the other side as demons and devils and and then turn around after the nomination is over and ask for their support, well, you certainly made it a lot harder for them to swallow their bile, hold their nose, and pull the lever for you,” Cuccinelli said.
Battle Plan For November
With the primary season nearly over, Cuccinelli said the Senate Conservatives Fund will focus its efforts on Senate races in Nebraska, Iowa and Louisiana.
In Nebraska, Republican nominee Ben Sasse is expected to triumph over his Democratic opponent. In Iowa, Republican nominee Joni Ernst is in a tight race with Democrat Bruce Braley. And in Louisiana, SCF is supporting Rob Maness over Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy and Democratic incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu.
Part of what Cuccinelli does is encourage SCF’s members to donate directly to these candidates.
“We keep rounding up our members to donate, which is one of the biggest things we do.”
Cuccinelli dismissed the argument from supporters of these incumbents that SCF spends more money going after Republicans than Democrats. “We’re about winning races; not losing races,” he said. “And all of these start with nomination contests. We have been out attacking Democrats.”
Campaigning In A Supporting Role
While he practices a little law on the side, Cuccinelli said he spends most of his time on SCF these days. It’s pretty much the first time in a decade he hasn’t been looking ahead to his next election.
“I will say that after 12 years of running, really a little more than that, it is very nice to not be on a campaign schedule for a while,” he said. “You know, I love my family and the main cost of being candidate in politics is family time.”
Does he miss being a candidate? “Well, I miss the direct engagement, yes. As opposed to playing supporting role.”
In the interview, he made clear he is no fan of McAuliffe, his opponent in the harshly-fought governor’s race last year.
“Even though I ran against an unmitigated slime ball last year — I mean Democrats say that. I’m not hyperbolizing there — losing has it’s benefits,” he said. “I like to practice law. I’m glad I still have some cases. I don’t have a ton. I’m not growing a law firm. But I am keeping my hand in, especially in the constitutional law side. That’s very pleasant.”
“Saturday, I’m going kayaking with my girls on the Shenandoah river,” he said. “I love the Shenandoah river. And I love spending time with my girls. If I were running for something, or if I had won the governor’s race, I wouldn’t be able to do that as a practical matter.”
Cuccinelli said he understands how helpful an organization like SCF can be for conservative candidates.
“Having been one as you note, I know how important that support is,” Cuccinelli said. “You need it from as many directions as you can get it.”