RICHMOND, Virginia — Ken Cuccinelli and Virginia's Republican Party ticket heading into the state's November bellwether elections couldn't have imagined how the headlines that vexed them a week ago could unite and galvanize the party in a few short days.
The freshly minted Republican gubernatorial nominee had been taking weeks of bruising headlines about his and Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell's ties to troubled nutritional supplements manufacturer Star Scientific Inc. At issue were gifts — some unreported — that Star Scientific's chief executive lavished on both men amid federal and state investigations into the company and the Executive Mansion's kitchen operations.
Each day's headlines bore more discouraging news for a GOP still healing from a thrashing in the 2012 election in which President Barack Obama carried Virginia for the second time in a row and fellow Democrat Tim Kaine spoiled Republican former Sen. George Allen's comeback bid and ended Allen's career in elective politics.
The real kick to the stomach for the GOP's tea party base came when McDonnell signed this year's transportation funding reform bill that became his legislative legacy. The new law, which will generate nearly $900 million more annually for the state's 58,000-mile web of highways, had eluded governors for at least a dozen years. But conservatives denounced it as the largest tax increase in Virginia history and a betrayal of the faith they'd put in him four years earlier.
"After this (2013 General Assembly) session, our base was pretty demoralized because we raised taxes with the transportation bill," said Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockingham, one of the bill's most avid House opponents. An adverse ruling by Cuccinelli on the legislature's adjournment day, done at Cline's request, nearly derailed the bill.
What a difference a few news cycles made.
One after another, national headlines enraged the conservatives who now dominate Virginia's Republican Party. By Saturday's statewide Republican convention, the week's news had affirmed their darkest Big Brother conspiracy nightmares and galvanized them behind Cuccinelli, who became a tea party hero by aggressively challenging Obama's 2010 healthcare reforms and taking on the Environmental Protection Agency.
The Internal Revenue Service really had picked on the tea party. Government documents revealed that the tax-collecting agency conservatives despise above all others had stonewalled, frustrated and delayed applications by tea party groups to become tax-exempt organizations.
E-mails released by the White House into its response to last fall's deadly raid on the U.S. consulate in Libya raised more questions by Republicans in Congress than they answered.
The Justice Department, it turns out, had covertly collected records of telephone calls made by editors and reporters of The Associated Press as it investigated how the global news cooperative obtained information about how a terrorist attack plot had been foiled.
And, as if anti-abortion activists needed a rallying cause, a Philadelphia abortion doctor was convicted of murder in several grisly late-term abortions.
Repeatedly, those were easy applause lines for conservative speakers who served up red meat for thousands of delegates who spent Saturday inside the ancient, hulking Richmond Coliseum. They affirmed Cuccinelli as their new gubernatorial nominee and choose state Sen. Mark Obenshain and Chesapeake minister E.W. Jackson as their nominees for attorney general and lieutenant governor, respectively.
"I don't think those things just affect the conservative base," Cuccinelli said Saturday, relaxing with his wife Tiero in his ready room off the floor of the sports arena. "When we get big federal issues like the IRS, everybody feels that."
He's right. Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives alike opened fire at the IRS last week in Washington and in Virginia, where it instantly became grist for the nation's only competitive gubernatorial race between Cuccinelli and former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, a protege of his party's Clinton family.
"They were going after folks like us and it's solidified people in the party and made them see that either we hang together or we hang separately," said Joshua Wilberger, a 30-year-old delegate from Edenburg who sported a yellow sticker on his shirt featuring the likeness of a coiled snake and the Revolutionary War credo: "Don't Tread on Me."
"I didn't think this administration would stoop this low, but obviously I was wrong," he said, referring to the Obama White House and the Democrats he can't wait to challenge this year.
Cuccinelli had been looking for a way to put the Democrats on the defensive and push into the background thorny and lingering questions about his ties to Star Scientific and the more than $18,000 in gifts from the company — the subject of three shareholders' lawsuits and a federal securities investigation — and its CEO, Jonnie Williams.
The past week's headlines and sentiments of supporters like Wilberger help him do just that. For Cuccinelli, who became a hero to conservatives nationally as the first state attorney general to challenge Obama's 2010 federal health care reform law in federal court, this is right in his wheelhouse. He smiled and stretched his cowboy-booted legs at the thought of it.
"Obviously, we get to focus on those issues in Virginia in a way that can redirect that energy," he said. "And, as you know, I've been fighting the federal government for a long, long time."
Bob Lewis has covered Virginia politics and government for The Associated Press since 2000.