“It’s a party that is disunited, in flux, in transition and defeated,” said Thomas M. Davis, the former Republican congressman. “We have nominated a ticket that Virginians don’t want to buy.”
While some Republicans say enough time remains for Cuccinelli to recover, Davis said that a defeat would require the party to confront like never before the division between the tea party activists who spurred Cuccinelli’s nomination and the moderates, independents and business leaders turned off by his conservative views on social issues.
That divide echoes the discord within the national GOP, now in full public view as congressional leaders struggle to end a federal shutdown connected to conservative activists seeking to defund the health-care law.
A Cuccinelli defeat in Virginia, Republicans fear, would give Democrats dominance in an important state as the two parties prepare for the 2014 midterm elections and the 2016 presidential race. Democrats would control the state bureaucracy and patronage appointments, which can drive fundraising.
“It sets the tone,” said Ralph Reed, a Republican strategist. “It’s an institutional advantage, no question.”
A Cuccinelli campaign official dismissed concerns about their chances and insisted that the Republican is still in position to win on Election Day.
With McAuliffe holding a decisive fundraising edge and the federal shutdown fueling voter anger, Republicans are afraid that time is running short for Cuccinelli to alter the race’s dynamics.
“I wish I was more optimistic — I’m a strong supporter of Ken — but it does not look very good for us out there,” said Cory Stewart, Republican chair of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors. “The environment for Republicans is toxic.”
In Virginia’s past nine gubernatorial elections, a span stretching back to 1977, the party that won the governor’s race did not occupy the White House, a trend political analysts attribute to the electorate’s drive to vent frustration at Washington.
But that streak is on track to end this year, according to seven recent polls that show McAuliffe with leads ranging from five to nine points.
“By all rights, we should be winning,” Davis said, alluding to the historical trend. “All of a sudden, it’s the 10th time, and you lose? What happened? We need to talk about putting this back together.”
Stewart acknowledged that he remains disappointed that Cuccinelli did not support his campaign for lieutenant governor at the state GOP convention in May. Still, Stewart and other Republicans faulted Cuccinelli’s campaign for focusing too much on attacking McAuliffe’s business dealings and not presenting a compelling theme around which voters can coalesce.