Jeff Schapiro

CLEVELAND Ken Cuccinelli is used to being pilloried — by Democrats and centrist Republicans. These days, he’s getting it from an unlikely quarter: the Republican right.

The former Virginia attorney general, defeated candidate for governor in 2013 and chief delegate hunter for Ted Cruz, is an object of opprobrium, having helped orchestrate a failed rules revolt on the opening day of the Republican National Convention that Donald Trump’s supporters interpreted as a final, desperate effort to deny their man the presidential nomination.

It was thwarted in a brief, captured-on-video fight during which a furious Cuccinelli — arguing that he was interested only in democratizing future Republican conventions — ripped his credentials from around his neck, threw them to the floor and stormed out of the hall.

It’s been a remarkable turn for Cuccinelli, who nonetheless intends to vote this fall for Trump — a candidate he describes, with rare understatement, as “unconventional in any political sense of the word.”

Starting as a state senator in the early 2000s from deep-blue Fairfax County, Cuccinelli has been the heartthrob of ideological conservatives.

A master of process, he has few equals in the arcane convention system with which Virginia Republicans increasingly choose their nominees — nominees, detractors say, with little appeal beyond the party’s narrow base.

Cuccinelli’s skills were on full view at the state GOP convention in Harrisonburg this spring, when he outmaneuvered the Trump forces to assemble a Cruz-dominated delegation to Cleveland.

At one point, Cuccinelli was lustily booed by Trump activists who considered it wrong to shortchange the billionaire in the 49-member delegation, having won the Virginia primary in March.

That’s not exactly the treatment to which Cuccinelli is accustomed. Sure, he’s been reduced to caricature by Democrats and more moderate Republicans — depicted as preoccupied with ending abortion, resisting gay rights, and disputing the science on climate change.

Little attention is paid to his interest in issues not ordinarily associated with conservatives: reversing mass incarceration, depoliticizing legislative and congressional redistricting, curbing human trafficking, and tougher oversight of public utilities, including Richmond-based Dominion, which fêted the Virginia delegation Tuesday.

“I kind of accept the beating I’m taking,” Cuccinelli said.

Cuccinelli, who may have a chance to run again should Democrat Tim Kaine relinquish his U.S. Senate seat to run for vice president, finds himself in the unusual position of being seen — particularly by Trump backers — as something he wasn’t during his rapid ascent in Republican politics: the embodiment of the Establishment.

John Fredericks, a Trump delegate from Chesapeake and the host of a radio talk show, said the rules fight — it started back home in district conventions in April and concluded Monday in the cavernous Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland — augurs Cuccinelli’s downfall within the GOP.

“His time has come and gone,” Fredericks said. “This was the last desperate moment of a party ruling class about to be swept away by a movement they’ve never understood.”

Others aren’t so sure.

Richard Viguerie, a nationally prominent direct-mail pioneer who unsuccessfully ran for lieutenant governor in 1985, said Cuccinelli is just getting started — “most of (his) political career is in front of him.”

Cuccinelli is now president of the Senate Conservatives Fund, a political-action committee founded by another lion of the right, former U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.

Still, Cuccinelli had been pounded in recent days.

Former Gov. Jim Gilmore, denied a delegate slot, took to Facebook on Monday to chide Cuccinelli: “It appears that Ken didn’t want other leadership in the delegation that would have opposed his behavior in Cleveland.”

And national radio commentator Rush Limbaugh told a caller Tuesday, “It wasn’t long ago that Ken Cuccinelli was the model conservative. ... And now look: Now we get a call talking about Cuccinelli as not very intelligent; as a sellout; as somebody who’s not a Republican anymore. Holy smokes! Wow!”

To Viguerie, Cuccinelli’s difficulties with the Trump wing of the GOP are rooted in an anti-hierarchical populism that lacks the organizational, communications and fundraising infrastructure that’s been built and refined by movement conservatives. Viguerie says that ultimately will give conservatives, such as Cuccinelli, the upper hand within the restive Republican coalition.

John Whitbeck, Virginia GOP chairman, says Trump Republicans — many of them newcomers — need to give Cuccinelli time; that they’ll find they have much in common.

Suspicion of government would seem a shared interest, with Cuccinelli — as attorney general — going to court in 2010 to stop Obamacare, derided by Trump six years later as federal overreach.

Cuccinelli is a bookish father of seven who publicly counseled tea party Republicans early in their ascendancy to steep themselves in the writings of the 18th-century French philosopher Montesquieu. He acknowledges that part of his problem may be packaging.

Because of the wholesale approach to contemporary politics — mass advertising, around-the-clock news coverage and nonstop social media — it’s easier to view Cuccinelli as a cut-out figure rather than a conservative activist. The remedy, he says, may be to go retail, as he did in his first statewide campaign in 2009, running for attorney general.

Alluding to the drama this week in Cleveland, Cuccinelli said, “If I ever go through the electoral process again, part of it will be to go small group by small group to explain what happened here.”

Contact Jeff E. Schapiro at (804) 649-6814. His column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Watch his video column Thursday on Richmond.com. Follow him on Twitter, @RTDSchapiro. Listen to his analysis 8:45 a.m. Friday on WCVE (88.9 FM).

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