By the 2007 election, Cuccinelli's hold on his Senate seat was tenuous as his district was becoming more liberal. After a vote so close that it required a recount, Cuccinelli ended up squeaking by the Democratic candidate by 101 votes and wasn't expected to survive another reelection bid.
As the 2009 off-year election approached, he switched gears and replaced the "ken4sen" vanity plates on his car with "kc4ag" plates. "Cuccinelli made a really smart move running statewide as he did,"says Rozell. "It was perfect timing."
Cuccinelli nabbed the attorney-general nomination at a state convention packed with the activist base of the party. And in the general election, his anti-tax, limited-government message—he vowed to pick fights with Washington early and often—seemed tailor-made for the times.
The Republican tail wind—driven by displeasure with President Obama, Congress, and continued economic distress—helped McDonnell and Bolling and, by the widest margin of all, Cuccinelli, glide into office.
"Ken Cuccinelli was elected by Barack Obama," says his former Republican Senate colleague Chichester.
But the new attorney general, who beat former Democratic delegate Stephen Shannon by a 58-to-42-percent vote, didn't see it that way. "When you run on something definitive and then win by a significant margin, you have a mandate," Cuccinelli says. "And I view that election as delivering a mandate to do exactly what we're doing in this office."
On week three of Cuccinelli's new job, it snowed. But the blizzard of 2010 was the only thing that slowed down the attorney general as he settled into office and started creating his own storms.
There was the suit against the Environmental Protection Agency's regulation to limit greenhouse gases, still in the courts, in which he argued that the agency had used faulty data to conclude that such gases were harmful.
There was the opinion sent to the state's public colleges and universities over discrimination against gays and lesbians, and the one to the state's board of health saying it could impose tighter regulations—as stiff as those required by hospitals—on clinics that perform first-trimester abortions, a measure that the General Assembly went on to pass this session and that, once signed by the governor, could force many of the state's abortion clinics to close.
Cuccinelli advised the governor to withdraw a proposed regulation that would have allowed state workers to add same-sex partners to their state health plan. And he issued an official opinion telling police officers that they, like police in Arizona, could inquire about the immigration status of anyone they stop.
There were personal dustups. With echoes of former US attorney general John Ashcroft, Cuccinelli requested a new version of the state-issued lapel pin for his staff, one that covered up the exposed breast of the Roman goddess Virtus on the 1776 state seal.
But all of that took a back seat to the move that put Cuccinelli on the map. After Obama signed the health-care bill into law in March 2010, "we waited, uh, 15 minutes," says Cuccinelli, then filed suit.
The suit, which argues that the federal government doesn't have constitutional power to compel Americans to buy private health insurance, was the first legal challenge to the law and will likely end up before the Supreme Court.
Before last fall, most constitutional scholars thought Cuccinelli's argument was pretty "adventurous and extreme," says George Washington University law professor Jeffrey Rosen. His victory in the first round, Rosen says, "shows how successful Cuccinelli has been in changing the Constitutional debate."
Cuccinelli believes the health-care bill represents "the greatest erosion of liberty in my lifetime."
He sees it as part of a "massive expansion of government," both through spending and regulation, that the states must fight.
"We are carrying most of the load," he told a group of young lawyers. "We are protecting the Constitution and the citizens of this country from our government."
Though he believes the Obama White House has pushed the powers of government beyond the boundaries of the law, he lays nearly as much blame on the previous occupants, calling the Medicare prescription-drug benefit that George W. Bush signed into law in 2003 "an attempt to buy reelection."
"That entitlement, in my view, we have to work our way out of and back toward consumer choice and control," Cuccinelli says. "I'm one of these folks who isn't just leaping up and down because we took the majority in the House. I have a 'we'll see' attitude. Let's face it, most of the people who are there in that caucus were there during the problem years, and some of them helped create and advance and grow the problem."
Were the Founding Fathers around today, he says, they'd line up with the tea party more than with either of the two major parties.
Cuccinelli says his political philosophy stems from his reading of history. "I've read history since I was kid," he says. "I was one of those kids who got in trouble with his parents because he wouldn't put the books down. I'd read with a crack of light coming through the door after bedtime."
Next: Cuccinelli's Washington roots