Enter Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II.
The outspoken Cuccinelli upended the governor’s race with a surprise challenge to Bolling in next year’s gubernatorial contest.
Since Cuccinelli’s announcement, Bolling has refocused a network of volunteers and embarked on a fundraising tour, while Cuccinelli has hired campaign consultants and pursued support from powerful business leaders.
Cuccinelli has uncharacteristically declined to comment on the race. But Bolling has lashed out, expressing his disappointment with his rival’s decision to get in the race and deriding him for putting his “personal ambition” ahead of the state.
Now, many Virginia Republicans are bracing for a bitter and expensive primary fight that threatens to divide the party — much like the presidential race has done for the GOP nationally — and change the trajectory of a state they control.
“It’s been some of the same angst, same split in the party as when I ran,’’ said former lieutenant governor John Hager, who ran for governor in 2001 but lost in a convention to a candidate who was perceived as more conservative. “The Republican Party is too easy to split. . . . But the splits change over time.”
At the heart of the dispute is a struggle that torments many Republicans both in Virginia and the rest of the country: whether to vote for a candidate who energizes them by pursuing conservative causes or one who appeals to more moderate voters by focusing on the economy.
Several rank-and-file activists have lined up behind Bolling or Cuccinelli, though McDonnell has urged a measured approach this early in the process. Party leaders say they are largely neutral in hopes that Republicans will quickly unify behind a nominee to defeat a Democrat looking to take back the governor’s mansion.
“The Republican Party in Virginia is diverse,’’ said former governor James S. Gilmore III, who nearly lost the party nomination for U.S. Senate against a more conservative candidate in 2008. “Democrats have an advantage in that they are unified in what they are trying to accomplish.’’
Bolling and Cuccinelli are cut from the same conservative cloth — both winning elections to the state Senate, where they served four years together.
Bolling, chairman of the Hanover County Board of Supervisors, knocked off a longtime Democratic incumbent in 1995 in what was becoming an increasingly suburban and Republican district outside Richmond.
Cuccinelli, a lawyer from Centreville, defeated a Democrat for an open seat in 2002, in part by campaigning against a sales-tax increase to pay for roads. He became the only Republican senator in increasingly Democratic Fairfax County.