RICHMOND — The leader of the Republican Party of Virginia prepared this week to publicly criticize Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling’s perceived disloyalty to the GOP, but he pulled back amid concerns that the gesture would strengthen perceptions that the party is in disarray.
Pat Mullins, chairman of the state GOP, was to issue a public statement after Bolling (R) appeared to support Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe in last weekend’s behind-the-scenes battle for a business group’s endorsement, according to three Republicans who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk about an internal party issue.
Several Republicans said they cautioned Mullins against speaking out because they didn’t want to give Bolling more attention when the focus should be on the man who wrested the gubernatorial nomination from him: Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II. Some also said they were concerned about feeding the narrative, heavily promoted by Democrats, that the Virginia GOP is increasingly under control of the tea party wing.
There is little question that Bolling’s ouster from the party would have called attention to that. The episode brought into public view how the party is caught between an angry base of grass-roots supporters and a more pragmatic establishment that fears repercussions at the ballot box if the party is perceived as intolerant of dissent.
Some Republicans were furious when Bolling’s name emerged in an e-mail describing high-profile politicians who had unsuccessfully tried to pressure a business political-action committee to reverse its plan to endorse Cuccinelli.
The leader of the Northern Virginia Technology Council’s TechPAC, who wrote the e-mail, later said that Bolling had inquired about the pending endorsement but did not ask him to change it, an account Bolling’s office agreed with. But some Republicans remained incensed, saying that Bolling’s opposition to Cuccinelli was so well known that it was obvious he was calling for McAuliffe. Some called for Bolling’s ouster from the party, something that happens automatically when a Republican formally endorses a candidate running against a party nominee.
In weighing action against Bolling, party leaders had to balance the interests of its grass-roots base, the Cuccinelli campaign and the already hobbled administration of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R).
Ousting the lieutenant governor from the party could energize the grassroots, the foot soldiers needed to turn out the vote for Cuccinelli. Yet that largely symbolic move could feed an account that McAuliffe has pushed in the governor’s race: that the tea party wing behind Cuccinelli has made the GOP inhospitable to “mainstream” Republicans.
And then there is the matter of McDonnell, the subject of state and federal investigations into lavish gifts and money provided to him and his family by a Virginia businessman. With the state party’s titular head crippled by scandal, some Republicans questioned the wisdom striking out at its No. 2.
“It’s like they have to be Kremlinologists,” said one Republican familiar with the internal party debate. “Navigating your way through this is not easy.”