This post has been updated.
Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) dropped out of the 2013 Republican race for Virginia governor Wednesday, likely clearing the way for Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II to secure the GOP nomination.
Bolling announced his decision Wednesday morning in an e-mail that said a switch in the nomination method pulled off by Cuccinelli supporters last summer — from a statewide primary to an “exclusive” party convention — had created “too many obstacles for us to overcome.”
“After a great deal of consideration I have decided to suspend my campaign for the Republican Party’s nomination for Governor of Virginia,” he said in his message. “Needless to say, this was a very difficult decision for me, and I know it will come as a surprise and disappointment to many, but I am confident it is the right decision.”
The message did not indicate if Bolling would seek reelection as lieutenant governor next year — a matter of considerable interest for the eight candidates running to replace him. Bolling said he looked forward to serving the remainder of his term and would be, with wife Jean Ann, “evaluating our future political options.”
Cuccinelli is a tea party favorite with strongly held conservative views. His likely matchup against Terry McAuliffe, the former head of the national Democratic Party, sets up an unusually colorful race next fall. Virginia and New Jersey are the only states with gubernatorial contests in 2013, so the high-profile race in the commonwealth is sure to generate national attention.
Cuccinelli also issued a statement Wednesday, praising Bolling for his public service.
“Throughout this race, I have kept to the premise that Bill and I are allies in governance, even if temporary competitors in politics,” the statement reads.” Bill Bolling is a good man — a true public servant who has worked hard throughout his career to make Virginia a better place to live and raise our families.”
The news of Bolling’s decision was first reported late Tuesday on the conservative blog Black Velvet Bruce Li and on Twitter by the liberal blogger Ben Tribbett.
GOP leadership appeared to rally around Cuccinelli in the wake of Bolling’s announcement on Wednesday. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) said in a statement Wednesday that the was “saddened” by Bolling’s decision not to seek the Republican nomination and that Bolling “would have been a very good governor” — though he added he looks forward to supporting Cuccinelli’s candidacy.
“I have spoken to Bill about his decision,” said McDonnell, who intended to support Bolling’s 2013 candidacy after the lieutenant governor stepped aside four years ago. “I know he believes it is the right one. I have also told Bill how much this Commonwealth needs him to stay involved in public life in the years ahead. And I know he is not done advocating positive conservative ideas.”
The Democratic Governors Association was quick to jump on the Bolling news, issuing a statement taking aim at Cuccinelli.
“Ken Cuccinelli would be the most extreme major party nominee for governor in Virginia’s history,” said Colm O’Comartun, executive director of the DGA. “He has spent the last four years launching anti-science, anti-equality, and fringe partisan crusades at the expense of doing the people’s business. There’s no evidence that his focus as governor would be any different.”
The potential clash of two statewide elected officials for the GOP nod had looked to be full of political intrigue. While Bolling had the support of much of the Republican establishment, including Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), Cuccinelli appeared to have the edge with party activists who revere the attorney general for his stands on abortion, climate change and other hot-button issues.
Cuccinelli gained a clear advantage over Bolling in June, when enough of his supporters gained control of the State Central Committee to change the nomination method from a statewide primary to a party convention. Conventions, which are attended by party regulars, tend to favor conservatives. A June poll of Virginia by Quinnipiac University showed Cuccinelli with a lead of more than 30 points over Bolling among Republican voters.
Bolling said the party’s about-face on the nomination method “created too many obstacles for us to overcome.” He also said that a divisive convention battle could do long-term harm to the state party, which lost the presidential and U.S. Senate contests this year.
“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,” Bolling said. “While it may have been in my self-interest to have continued the campaign and done my best to win without regard to the consequences of those actions, I have never chosen to place my self-interest ahead of our Party’s best interest, and I will not do so now.
Barring a new entrant on either side, Cuccinelli appears poised to face businessman McAuliffe in November’s general election. McAuliffe currently has the Democratic field to himself since Sen. Mark Warner (D) announced last week he would not seek a return engagement as governor.
Some Democrats are hoping ex-Rep. Tom Perriello, currently at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, will decide to enter the gubernatorial race, but he has so far not indicated publicly that he is interested. Perriello has not responded to several requests for comment on the subject in the last week.
Many Democrats and some Republicans believe Bolling would have been the stronger general election candidate, with more potential appeal to independents and swing voters. Yet Cuccinelli supporters believe he will energize his party’s base and drive turnout much more than Bolling could have.
For Bolling, 2013 is looking like 2009, when he stepped aside so that McDonnell would not have any opposition for the GOP nomination.