Over the weekend, I wrote that the Virginia GOP caught a break because Terry McAuliffe has thrown his hat into the ring, likely chasing off other competitors and ensuring that the Democrats will have one of its worst 2009 gubernatorial contestants giving it another shot. But before Republicans celebrate too loudly they should take a look at their two top candidates, which in some ways personify the trouble the GOP is facing.
The establishment favorite is Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling. He’s served two terms in a job with no responsibilities. He looks older than his 55 years. He is staid and solid. He is boring. I’ve never heard him present an innovative policy idea. He gives an adequate stump speech. But he’s not exactly a charismatic or wonky leader for the future.
If you don’t like him, there is state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. He championed the anti-Obamacare litigation earning plaudits from conservatives. But he is also strident on social issues, immigration and most other matters to very little result. He went after state universities that wanted to adhere to policies prohibiting discrimination against gays. He has backed an Arizona-style immigration law for the state. He has also repeatedly tangled with the State Board of Health over regulations on abortion. If there is a symbolic victory on hard-right grounds (i.e., a loss that paints the GOP as extremist), Cuccinelli is close by. If there is a hard-liner who could lose big in Fairfax County and hand the election to the Democrats, he’s the guy.
Anyone else? It doesn’t appear so. The state party in its infinite wisdom decided on a convention instead of a primary, boxing out other contenders and probably giving an advantage to the base favorite Cuccinelli. So here you have it: An unaccomplished, dull party insider and a firebrand base-catering faux outsider (he’s actually been in government since 2002) who is easily portrayed as hostile to minorities, gays and single women. If Virginia were Alabama, Cuccinelli would be a shoo in. But we’ve seen in two presidential elections that Virginia is not politically so monolithic. Even in an off-year election with an older and more conservative electorate, it will be touch-and-go with a candidate like Cuccinelli.
Now perhaps Bolling will perk up, show some creative thinking and reach out to independents and conservative Democrats. Maybe Cuccinelli will eschew hot-button-issue stunts and present a credible campaign that can save the Republicans from a wipeout in Northern Virginia.
But perhaps there is an energetic, inclusive conservative who can storm the castle and drum up support as a worthy successor to Gov. Bob McDonnell, a conservative who won by 17 points and then governed successfully on bread-and-butter issues. Virginia’s GOP right now risks being part of the problem, not part of the reformation of the GOP.