By Kathryn Watson | Virginia Statehouse News
ALEXANDRIA — When Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli kicks his 2013 race for governor into high gear, he will take with him — for better or worse — the status as the man who spearheaded the charge against the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
Cuccinelli, who made Virginia the first state to file a lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act minutes after it was signed by President Barack Obama in March 2010, continues to champion less-intrusive government as he takes the ACA saga with him to the ballot box in November 2013.
Despite his indignation over the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that the individual mandate is a tax and the national health-care law be upheld, Cuccinelli voiced no regrets in fighting the law, saying he thinks Virginians are “seeing the value of us fighting back.”
“On a constitutional level, the constitutional defender in me does feel like we definitely did the right thing, and that we protected the interests we set out to protect …,” Cuccinelli told Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau on Monday in a 25-minute telephone interview.
The attorney general said it was best for Virginia to go it alone in the 2010 lawsuit instead of latching on to more than 20 other states’ legal challenges. The move earned him national attention from the media, tea party advocates and even presidential candidates.
Cuccinelli argued that the individual mandate conflicted with the Virginia Health Care Freedom Act, passed in the General Assembly during the 2010 session. VHCFA says, “(n)o resident of this Commonwealth … shall be required to obtain or maintain a policy of individual insurance coverage.”
But the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the lawsuit in September 2011, saying Virginia “lacks standing to challenge the individual mandate.” Another blow to Cuccinelli’s efforts came when the U.S. Supreme Court denied Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s immediate request to review the case.
The latest blow, of course, came with last week’s ruling.
The challenge ahead
How the ACA fight will play out in next year’s gubernatorial race remains to be seen.
Cuccinelli’s main Republican challenger likely will be Lt. Gov. Bob Bolling, but the Virginia Republican Party will make the final call. The Virginia GOP’s central committee, in a controversial mid-June decision, opted to choose a gubernatorial candidate in a closed convention, rather than a primary.
If he survives the convention, Cuccinelli faces competition from potential Democratic candidates, including popular U.S. Sen. Mike Warner and former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe, in the Nov. 5, 2013, general election.
Any traction that Cuccinelli may gain from his ACA fight, however, may hinge on this year’s elections first, said Geoff Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics in Charlottesville.
Virginia, Skelley said, has a strange habit when it comes to its gubernatorial elections. Since 1977, the person elected governor always has represented the opposite party of the sitting president. Ironically, a Republican win in the White House could point to a Democratic win for the Virginia governor seat.
“If (Republican Mitt) Romney wins November, let’s say the beginning of this administration gets off to a rocky start kind of like Obama’s did,” said Skelley, “(and)… if McAuliffe is the Democratic nominee … he might be able to win in 2013 against Cuccinelli just because there’ll be maybe a more anti-Republican feel, kind of like there was an anti-Democratic wave in 2009, 2010.”
Aside from the presidential race between Obama and GOP presumptive nominee Romney, Virginians also will be choosing a U.S. senator in a race that pits two former governors, Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican George Allen, against each other in a high-visibility contest. Virginia voters in 11 of the state’s congressional districts also will go to the polls in November.
But even with the ACA intact, Skelley said Cuccinelli can champion his role in fighting it all the way to the highest court in the land.
Cuccinelli said Thursday’s ruling — while a defeat in terms of health-care policy — was a win for liberty, states’ liberty and even Virginia’s lawsuit.
Originally dubbing Thursday’s ruling a “dark day for American liberty,” Cuccinelli changed his tone after vetting the majority opinion, giving props to the court for outlining limits on presidential and congressional authority to force commerce on the states.
The court’s ruling that government cannot force individuals to buy health insurance resonated with the core of Virginia’s argument, said Cuccinelli. Instead, the court referred to the requirement as a tax.
Cuccinelli also applauded the court for telling the federal government it couldn’t threaten to withhold Medicaid funding in those states that don’t expand their Medicaid rolls.
“On the liberty side, we won,” Cuccinelli said in a Thursday news conference.
Toni-Michelle Travis, an associate professor of government and politics at George Mason University in Fairfax, said the ACA ruling only can help Cuccinelli. Those who have supported him all along will continue to harp on the ACA as wrong and intrusive, and Cuccinelli’s resoluteness might even pick him up more support, she added.
“I think it’ll energize his base,” said Travis. “… Others may begin to look at him more seriously.”
Noah Wall, political director for Cuccinelli’s campaign, said what matters now is getting Romney and other Republicans into office.
“Ken is completely focused on 2012 from a political perspective,” Wall said. “… Once that’s done, we can move on and work on our race. But at this point, we’re focusing on 2012.”
Voters, Cuccinelli told Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau, will take his job performance as attorney general — health care fight and all.
“People are going to judge whether they appreciate my pursuit of those goals, or whether they do not,” he said. “And that’s what elections are about — they’re partly about accountability.”