Virginia GOP picks staunch conservatives as statewide candidates

Thousands of Virginia Republicans on Saturday picked a slate of statewide candidates who vowed to stay true to conservative principles, resisting calls to remake the GOP message after losses in 2012.

At the top of the ticket is gubernatorial hopeful Ken Cuccinelli II, the attorney general. Known for high-profile battles against “Obamacare,” abortion and a university climate scientist, Cuccinelli stood by what detractors have called an out-of-the-mainstream agenda.

“When did it become extreme to protect children from predators and human traffickers?” Cuccinelli asked. “When did it become extreme to guard our Constitution from overreach? When did it become extreme to secure the freedom of the wrongly convicted? And when did it become extreme to ask government to spend a little less so our economy can grow?”

He left the stage to the strains of the country music singer Aaron Tippin’s “You’ve Got to Stand for Something.”

Cuccinelli was one of three conservatives chosen Saturday for the GOP’s 2013 ticket — a reaction, many here at the state party convention said, to last year’s failed presidential bid by Mitt Romney, a Republican they thought was too moderate and waffling.

Post coverage of the race for Virginia governor.

E.W. Jackson, a minister from Chesapeake, won the nomination for lieutenant governor with a full-throated appeal for limited government, traditional families and gun rights. “We will not only win an election in November, we will open the hearts and minds of our people and save this commonwealth and save this country,” said Jackson, the first African American nominated by the Virginia GOP for statewide office since 1988.

For attorney general, the party nominated state Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg), who this year successfully pushed tougher voter ID rules. “Are you ready to stop Obamacare in its tracks?” he asked the crowd in his acceptance speech, eliciting cheers.

Scrapping plans for an open primary to choose candidates, Republicans held a closed convention, a forum that draws only the most committed activists because it requires travel from all corners of the commonwealth to Richmond. That change prompted Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) — a conservative, but one lacking the combative style that has made Cuccinelli a favorite of activists — to abandon his run for governor last year. He considered an independent bid and last week launched a political action committee to recruit “mainstream” Republicans, saying his party was becoming “too extreme.”

After losing their second presidential race in a row last fall, Republicans across the country got an earful on how to rebuild. TV talking heads, politicians and the party’s national leader advised the GOP to become more welcoming and inclusive, to change its tone on some social issues and to embrace immigration reform.

Some delegates saw the selection of Jackson as evidence that the party is heeding calls for more racial diversity.

Aside from that, Virginia Republicans are largely resisting that nudge to the middle. Their prescription for electoral success in 2013 and beyond calls for fielding candidates who are conservative and proud of it. One lieutenant governor candidate was accompanied by Oliver North. Another brought Allen B. West, the former Florida congressman and tea party hero.

“The tea party leaders in Virginia are not for toning it down,” said Mark Daugherty, chairman of the Virginia Tea Party Patriots Federation, which unites 46 tea party groups across the state. “We think folks who left us billions in debt and deficits and regulations, they need to tone it down. . . . Trying to move to the middle, or moderate your view, or tone down your conservative view is the wrong approach to future electoral success.”

Jeff Ryer, spokesman for the state Senate Republican caucus, said party activists are yearning for unabashed conservatives.

“I just get the sense that most Republicans are looking for candidates that are forthright, that are direct,” Ryer said. “They’re looking for people who aren’t embarrassed . . . like they’re at a cocktail party and they chose the wrong fork.”

That description could apply to North, the former Marine Corps lieutenant colonel and Iran-contra figure who attended the convention to support businessman Pete Snyder for lieutenant governor.

“I go all over the country for my party, and I’m not ashamed to do so,” North said in an interview Friday. “The best chance we have as a party is to find young, positive, free enterprise-experienced conservatives who understand what the media describe as social issues are really deeply moral and spiritual issues. And those candidates we need have not only that full background, but they’re unashamed to stand up and say so.”

Where Republicans celebrate a forceful trio, Democrats see a “very extreme ticket,” said Charniele L. Herring, chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia.

“It reminds me of what my mom told me when I was a child: ‘You’re loud and you’re wrong,’ ” she said.

No matter how the Virginia GOP’s strategy plays out in November, it will not go unnoticed. The state is one of just two with governor’s races this year. With New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) expected to win reelection, Cuccinelli’s race against former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe has drawn national attention. Depending on how the race goes, Republicans across the country are likely to use Virginia’s governor’s race as a road map — or as an example of what not to do.

“There’s only really one competitive state in terms of elections in 2013, and that’s Virginia,” said Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart, who lost on the third ballot in the lieutenant governor contest. “And I think the whole nation is going to be looking to see whether the Republican Party can pull itself together, unite around a message and candidate, and beat the Democrats back.”

Of the seven lieutenant governor candidates, only one — former state senator and delegate Jeannemarie Devolites Davis of Fairfax County — ran on a platform that explicitly called for broadening the party’s appeal to moderates and minorities. Davis, who had Bloomberg’s backing in her failed 2007 state Senate reelection bid because she supported some gun-control measures, was eliminated Saturday in the first round of balloting.

Cuccinelli had opened his campaign with the release of a book trumpeting his view that the federal government is too intrusive and that entitlement programs breed dependency. Democrats were almost giddy, seeing it as a windfall on par with the old master’s thesis decrying “cohabitators, homosexuals [and] fornicators” that came back to haunt term-limited Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) during his race four years ago. Democratic legislators mocked the book, “The Last Line of Defense: The New Fight for American Liberty,” by staging a dramatic reading.

But Republican activists applauded. “He never wavers,” said Dotti Nijakowski, director of student affairs at Liberty University School of Law, who attended the convention.

Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, a veteran Democratic political strategist, said some Democrats and independents might be in the mood for candidates who don’t try to soft-pedal their beliefs.

“Politicians, overall as a trade, are in the bottom of the outhouse,” he said. “And the reason is, they talk out of the side of their mouths, most of them. . . . The fact that Ken Cuccinelli’s talking out of the front of his mouth and not the side of his mouth, I think, is refreshing to everybody, whether you agree with him or not.”

Ben Pershing contributed to this report.

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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