Its own worst enemy

Published 9:39 pm Friday, November 30, 2012

Virginia’s Republican Party has a problem.

Shut out of the U.S. Senate since the retirement of Senator John Warner in 2009, Republicans have watched their prospects fade, at least on the national level, ever since the 2008 elections. With the 2008 elections came the first real discussion of the “purpling” of the Commonwealth, as Virginia helped sweep Democrat Barack Obama into the office of president. The 2012 elections confirmed the shift toward blue, with Obama taking the state by four percentage points and Democrat Tim Kaine beating the establishment Republican candidate, George Allen, by nearly six points.

The one bright spot for Republicans has been in the Governor’s Mansion, where Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell has been widely popular since he took office in 2010. Members of the GOP in Virginia have been hopeful his popularity would give them a chance for back-to-back governorships for the first time since Jim Gilmore succeeded George Allen in the position in 2002.

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But an intra-party squabble and some sour grapes on the part of one of the leading contenders for the Republican nomination this week point up a disconnect between the establishment and populist wings of the party and raise the question of whether the state’s Republicans can mount a united front in 2013 against presumed Democratic nominee Terry McAulliffe.

Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling is a moderate Republican who worked his way up through the ranks of local and state politics and waited in the shadow of McDonnell in the hope that his position as McDonnell’s jobs czar would propel him into the state’s top elected position. But he found his plans foiled in November, when Romney’s failure to win the presidency scotched any chance of McDonnell taking an early leave from Richmond for a cabinet post in Washington, D.C. Facing a tough campaign for the Republican nomination against Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a darling of nascent populist Tea Party, Bolling quit the race this week.

It could have been a magnanimous gesture toward uniting the Virginia Republican Party following its embarrassing November performance. Bolling could have announced he was retiring from the race to give Cuccinelli the space to finally prove whether the conservative wing of their party had the traction in Virginia to be politically viable. Such a test also would have had national implications, as the tension between establishment and populist Republicans can be felt around the nation.

But Bolling chose this week to increase that tension, rather than ease it. Announcing his withdrawal from the race for the Republican nomination, Bolling left the door open for an Independent run for Governor, and he couldn’t resist the urge to take a jab at Cuccinelli. “I have serious reservations about his ability to effectively and responsibly lead the state,” Bolling said. “And given those reservations, I could not in good conscience endorse his candidacy for governor.”

Virginia Democrats quickly grabbed the opportunity Bolling gave them, shedding crocodile tears for the lieutenant governor. “It is disappointing that more mainstream Virginia Republicans are being driven out of leadership by the far-right,” McAulliffe said. “Virginia voters have repeatedly made clear that they prefer mainstream leaders building consensus instead of politicians pursuing their own ideological agenda.”

Whether McAulliffe’s assessment of the Commonwealth’s electorate is accurate remains to be seen. It is clear, though, that Virginia Republicans have a lot more to worry about than their opponents on the other side of the aisle. Right now, the GOP in Virginia is its own worst enemy.