“This is a very unpredictable campaign, and I will be watching closely how it evolves,” he said.
The dynamic created by the lieutenant governor’s exit could lead to a brutally negative race aimed at turning out the base of each party.
Mo Elleithee, a national Democratic consultant, said Bolling’s decision to bow out “speaks volumes about the state of the Virginia Republican Party.”
“It seems to be the wrong lesson learned from 2012,” said Elleithee, who worked on McAuliffe’s 2009 campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination and former governor Timothy M. Kaine’s successful U.S. Senate race this year. “Bill Bolling felt like he had absolutely no path and that the ideologues sort of had it locked up for Cuccinelli. In 2012, Virginians sent a pretty strong message that they didn’t want hyperpartisanship.”
McAuliffe is known as “a dealmaker,” said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes gubernatorial races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, and Cuccinelli “is far more ideological in a lot of ways.”
“I think [Cuccinelli] walks around with a copy of the Constitution, and McAuliffe doesn’t,” she said.
Running in 2009 on the slogan “Bob’s for Jobs!,” Robert F. McDonnell rebranded himself as someone primarily focused on economic development. He managed to do that despite the unearthing of a master’s thesis in which he was critical of working women, gays and a Supreme Court decision legalizing the use of contraceptives by unmarried couples. McDonnell said during the campaign that his views had changed since he wrote the paper as an evangelical student in his 30s.
Some observers said McAuliffe might be able to recast himself as a pro-business moderate — “Mark Warner lite,” as one conservative put it — especially given the relatively centrist positions his friend Bill Clinton took as president. Taylor said that might work, even though as DNC chairman and as a candidate for governor in 2009, McAuliffe was no middle-of-the-road Democrat, she said.
“If he tries to talk about the Clinton years, that could have more of an appeal to centrists,” Taylor said.
McAuliffe may still have some work to do convincing Virginia Democrats that he is one of them — which he was not able to do four years ago when he sought the Democratic nomination. Notably, when Warner announced his decision to stay in the Senate, he did not endorse McAuliffe.
Republicans have signaled that they plan to recast McAuliffe as a carpetbagger, though he has worked to shore up grass-roots support in the state since 2009.
But no one imagines that Cuccinelli will try to play down his strong conservative stances against abortion, gay rights, “Obamacare” and climate change.
“Romneyesque hedging,” as one supporter put it, would ruin the Cuccinelli brand.
Still, Cuccinelli could make himself more appealing to swing voters by taking up new causes with the same zeal that helped him win tea party hearts, said Pete Snyder, a technology entrepreneur and Republican lieutenant governor candidate who oversaw the GOP’s 2012 campaign in Virginia.
“You won’t find Ken Cuccinelli going back on his principles,” Snyder said. “But I anticipate he’ll take that same warrior mentality to focus on reform issues — how the middle class has been getting ripped off — and he’ll defy expectations.”
Ben Pershing contributed to this report.