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Virginia Attorney General and Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli takes aim while hunting in King George County. [Photo: Beau Beasley]

KING GEORGE COUNTY, Va. – Scott Lingamfelter pulls his car into a parking area along a windswept field overlooking the Potomac River in King George County. The Virginia House of Delegates member who represents Prince William and Fauquier counties exits his vehicle clad completely in olive-drab camouflage clothing, looking more like an Army sniper than a state politician ready to work a crowd.

He releases Sonny, his yellow Labrador retriever puppy, who runs circles around Lingamfelter’s legs while the politician tries to fill a bowl with water for his companion. Sonny doesn’t wait for the drink; instead, he bolts to a nearby white tent where a host of other sportsmen have gathered. He stops to greet the hunters and then sticks his nose under the tent. Has he picked up the scent of simmering barbeque?

“Sonny, get back over here!” shouts Limgamfelter.

Sonny quickly returns and obeys Lingamfelter’s command to sit, though it’s clear that Sonny is eager to get underway.

“He’s still pretty young,” says Lingamfelter to his companions, “but like most of us, he responds well to good training.”

This fundraising event is a Saturday morning dove hunt hosted by a local landowner with the support of the Virginia Police Benevolent Association (VPBA), a union representing law enforcement officers from around the state. While the crowd, mostly male, gathers near the barbeque tent and swaps old hunting stories, many hunters take the opportunity to question the local politicians in attendance.

The main attraction will be Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican candidate in Virginia’s gubernatorial election this November. Before he arrives, however, Congressman Rob Wittman (R, Va.-1), an avid sportsman who serves on the House Committee on Natural Resources, holds the floor.

Attendees pepper Wittman with questions on everything from the stalled Farm Bill to public access to Virginia waterways to the plight of menhaden (a popular saltwater baitfish), and he is clearly eager and well prepared to discuss these issues. His extensive knowledge and understanding, and his search for bipartisan approaches to issues like solving the problems of the Chesapeake Bay and preserving the area’s wetlands, have made Rob Wittman very popular among Virginia sportsmen.

Will Virginia sportsmen decide the election?

Within an hour Attorney General Cuccinelli arrives, and he is immediately surrounded by attendees. Among those gathered are many law enforcement officers from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. They are members of the VPBA, which has endorsed Cuccinelli, and they are concerned about the current and future plight of Conservation Police Officers—more commonly called game wardens—who face shrinking budgets and chronic understaffing.

After a hearty lunch of barbeque, coleslaw, and collard greens, Congressman Wittman expresses his regret that he cannot join the hunters, and heads to another scheduled event. Delegate Lingamfelter picks up his shotgun and makes for the field with the rest of the sportsmen, Sonny tagging along behind, tail wagging. The attorney general takes up his position near a large hay bale, shotgun in hand, and waits for his quarry to fly overhead.

Sportsmen—and particularly hunters eager to defend their Second Amendment rights—are an important source of votes, especially in an off-year election. Turnout in a presidential election year may be as high as 73% of registered voters, whereas in an off-year election, those numbers routinely plummet to the low 40s.

Both Cuccinelli and his opponent, Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe, recognize that the sporting vote could be crucial this year. The problem politicians face is crafting a clear message that appeals to those potential voters without turning away many others.

Outdoor pursuits represent a significant portion of the economy of the Commonwealth. Sportsmen spend money on gear, watercraft, clothing, ammo—and gas, food, and lodging when they travel. In a 2013 report released by the American Sport Fishing Association, the Commonwealth of Virginia ranked 10th overall in angler expenditures in a state-by-state ranking; total expenditures in Virginia reached nearly $1.5 billion.

A 2011 report released by the National Shooting Sports Foundation found that those who went afield to hunt spent nearly $1 billion in the Old Dominion. This directly supported 20,492 jobs and resulted in the collection of nearly $103 million in state taxes and $132 million in federal taxes. These taxes supported conservation work on everything from trout streams to waterfowl habitat.

The hunters are scattered across the field alongside massive hay bales. The shotguns soon sound, and Sonny and his companions retrieve the downed doves. Attorney General Cuccinelli rises from his seat to fire, but misses his first attempt.

“I’ve been hunting or fishing in Virginia for as long as I can remember,” he says.

He laments that he’s not able to fish or hunt as often as he might like: “Besides not getting to see my family every day, one of the hardest parts about being on the campaign trail 24/7 is not being able to be outdoors very often.” Then another flock of doves approaches and Cuccinelli shoulders his shotgun. This time his aim is true.

Candidates face challenges with sportsmen

Both candidates face obstacles to capturing the sporting vote. The attorney general has taken heat for not defending a fly angler who was sued by a riparian landowner for trespassing while fishing on the Jackson River. The angler was following all state laws at the time and fishing in a part of the river that the state had advertised as public property. Cuccinelli’s position—very similar to that of former Attorney General Mary Sue Terry (D) in a similar case in 1996 on the same river—is that he could not defend the angler because the dispute was a civil matter between two private parties. This position drew the ire of several angling groups across the state.

Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe may also struggle to gain traction among sportsmen at a time when the Democratic Party has embraced gun control legislation across the country. He has attempted to portray Cuccinelli as a staunch conservative out of touch with everyday citizens, while the attorney general points to McAuliffe’s lack of executive experience and has painted McAuliffe as the consummate political insider who moved to Virginia recently for the sole purpose of running for governor.

According to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, both candidates possess a hunting license. Regrettably, the candidates’ single gubernatorial debate touched only lightly on issues of concern to sportsmen however both claimed to be hunters.

“I’m the only candidate in this race with a record of listening to sportsmen’s concerns and fighting for our Second Amendment rights at every turn,” says Cuccinelli. I’m proud of my A rating from the NRA. My opponent, on the other hand, is the only statewide candidate who received an F rating.”

Calls to the McAuliffe campaign about that candidate’s history on hunting and his position on sportsmen’s issues went unanswered.

Beau Beasley in an investigative conservation writer and the author of Fly Fishing Virginia: A No Nonsense Guide to Top Waters.

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