Virginia's Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling announced today that he will not run for governor, essentially conceding the Republican nomination to State Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. In a statement he explained, “Four years ago I decided to set my personal ambition to be Governor aside and join with Bob McDonnell to create a united Republican ticket. . . . I had hoped that Attorney General Cuccinelli and I would be able to form that same kind of united Republican ticket in 2013. However, late last year Mr. Cuccinelli unexpectedly announced that he intended to challenge me for the Republican Party’s nomination for Governor.” Moreover, the die was cast when the state party decided to hold a convention rather than an open primary: “I reluctantly concluded that the decision to change the method of nomination from a primary to a convention created too many obstacles for us to overcome. . . . Conventions are by their very nature exclusive, and at a time when we need to be projecting a positive image and reaching out to involve more Virginians in the Republican Party, I am unwilling to be part of a process that could seriously damage our image and appeal.”
If that strikes you as a little bitter, it’s not without cause. Bolling was the dutiful Republican and got trounced by a more ambitious pol who is better connected to the conservative base. A GOP insider in Richmond told me that Bolling “just couldn’t see a way to win in a convention.” That is both a function of his low-key demeanor and lack of conservative panache and of Cuccinelli’s masterful playing of the right wing.
Now the question is whether the fiery conservative Cuccinelli can curb his sometimes extreme rhetoric and win a statewide race against the former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe. A former Bolling supporter reminds me, “People forget, Ken Cuccinelli has been winning elections in Fairfax County and statewide over the past decade while Terry McAuliffe has just been raising money for the Democratic Party.”
Cuccinelli will need to prepare himself for the onslaught from the media and Democrats (I repeat myself) that will surely focus on his posturing on abortion and gay rights. If he is smart, Cuccinelli, like McDonnell (who also had a reputation as a staunch social conservative), will stick by his views but focus in measured, positive tones on the issues most Virginians care about (e.g., roads, education, the economy). He would do well to reach out to minority communities, explaining he is not anti-immigrant but duty-bound to enforce immigration laws.
If the race is fought on gay rights, abortion, immigration and anti-Obama vitriol, Cuccinelli will have a tough time. If, however, he makes this about Virginia issues and continuing the legacy of prudent conservative governance, he stands a good chance to win, particularly in an off-year election with a smaller, more conservative electorate. We’ll see soon enough if Cuccinelli has the personal discipline to run a winning race.