Fearing a lost governor’s race, Virginia Republicans confront party divide

With just three weeks remaining before the election, Republican leaders in Virginia fear that their nominee, Ken Cuccinelli II, is on his way to losing the governor’s race and that the party will squander command of a state that is key to their quest to dominate next year’s midterm elections and the 2016 presidential race.

Distressed over a flurry of recent polls showing Democrat Terry McAuliffe with a solid lead, Virginia Republicans are talking about rebuilding their organization, which is suffering from deep internal rifts similar to those roiling the national party.

“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.

Previous Republican candidates in Virginia have chosen simple, single issues to drive their campaigns, whether it was James S. Gilmore III’s promise to eliminate the unpopular car tax, George Allen’s pledge to end parole or current Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s emphasis on the economy, with the slogan “Bob’s for Jobs.”

“The problem is there’s no central idea behind the Cuccinelli campaign,” Stewart said. “What Ken should be projecting is an absolute focus on the economy and his tax plan. But his message is muddled.”

Coby Dillard, vice chairman of the Norfolk Republican Party, said Cuccinelli’s campaign reminds him of the mistakes the GOP made during the 2012 presidential campaign when it repeatedly attacked incumbent President Obama.

“We didn’t tell them why they should vote for Mitt Romney,” he said, referring to the Republican presidential nominee. “There’s so much focus on Terry McAuliffe, the campaign almost forgot to talk about Ken Cuccinelli. He’s not able to build a coalition outside of the hard Republicans who were going to vote for him anyway.”

Responding to the criticism, Chris LaCivita, a senior Cuccinelli strategist, said, “It’s uncommon but not unheard of for what I consider to be poseurs to attack a campaign before it’s over.”

“It ain’t over yet,” he said. “We won’t concede, and shame on those who do.”

After Romney’s defeat in 2012, the Republican National Committee called on the party to change its tone and appeal to groups such as gays, minorities and women.

It didn’t happen in Virginia. Tea party activists gained control of the state party and succeeded in holding a convention rather than a primary to nominate this year’s slate of candidates, a critical move because conventions attract fewer and more conservative participants.

The maneuver pushed Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a fiscal conservative with deep support in the business community, to drop out of the race. It also led to the nomination for lieutenant governor of E.W. Jackson, a minister whose attacks on gays, non-Christians and Planned Parenthood have stirred even more criticism against the GOP.

Cuccinelli’s opposition to gay rights, in particular, has alienated business leaders and fellow Republicans — including Bolling, who has described the attorney general as “extreme” — helping McAuliffe expand his base of financial donors. In some business quarters, Republicans are hoping that a Cuccinelli defeat will help steer the party away from the tea party faction.

“Do we need a Goldwater moment?” asked one Northern Virginia executive, a Republican fundraiser who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of being targeted by activists. “They got the ticket they wanted, and if they all get wiped out, there is that sentiment that possibly something needs to happen to bring the party back to the middle.”

A Cuccinelli defeat could force Republicans to further “reevaluate what goes to the front of the agenda,” said Edward J. Rollins, a GOP strategist whose clients have included Ronald Reagan and other high-profile candidates. “Is it going to be responsible governing, or is it a lot of noise and extremism that’s obviously detrimental?”

Yet Rollins and other Republicans also said they don’t expect the tea party’s influence on the GOP to decrease substantially. “It may diminish the tea party’s agenda, but the tea party is still a factor,” Rollins said. “It’s clearly a part of the Republican Party, and my sense is that the Republican Party has to deal with the tea party.”

The mood among Virginia Republicans was far different in early spring, as they began the campaign against McAuliffe, whom they perceived as vulnerable because of his questionable business dealings and his failed bid for governor four years ago.

“People were feeling pretty good,” said Shaun Kenney, the former communications director for the state GOP and now a contributor to Bearing Drift, a conservative blog. Referring to the feeling then, he said: “We got the candidate who won’t back down. We’re going to have an honest, clear policy debate. We’re going to argue the merits, and we’re going to win.”

“Instead, it devolved into the precise opposite,” he said. Cuccinelli’s platform, he said, consisted of: “ ‘McAuliffe is a sleazebag and, oh, by the way, did we mention that McAuliffe is a sleazebag?’ That’s not enough. Ken needs a big idea, and he needs it yesterday.”

Yet Kenney does not agree with those Republicans who see Cuccinelli as too conservative for purple Virginia. Rather, he said, Cuccinelli has been constrained at a moment when standing tall for his long-held principles would have served him well.

Cuccinelli’s campaign “won’t let Ken be Ken,” Kenney said. He noted Cuccinelli’s decision not to appear with Sen.Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) at a recent dinner in Richmond.

“The base wanted to see him link arms with Cruz,” Kenney said. “At some point you dance with the one who brung you. You stay true to your friends.”

It’s a sentiment that may not bode well for the Republicans’ ability to salve their internal strife. Davis, the former GOP congressman, said the party needs to reform its positions and the way it appeals to the electorate.

“The Republican coalition that Cuccinelli has assembled doesn’t reflect Virginia’s changing demographics,” Davis said. “The state is more urban, more secular, more diverse, and his campaign and coalition is focusing on older, rural people.

“You’ve got to be inclusive and positive,” he said, “and these people aren’t.”

Paul Schwartzman specializes in political profiles and narratives about life, death and everything in between.
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