Senior Regional Correspondent

It’s been a while coming, but the reckoning has arrived for the Virginia Republican Party. It takes the form of Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s back-stabbing decision to challenge Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling for the 2013 governor’s nomination. It promises to last 18 months, as the tea party and establishment wings battle for supremacy.

The principal winners should be the Democrats — but only if they manage to take advantage of the GOP rift. They’ve looked pretty hapless in losing three straight elections in the commonwealth.

Cuccinelli’s move has left a sour taste among many Republican activists, who believe he put personal ambition over party solidarity. They don’t relish the prospect of extended internal fights over money, endorsements and grass-roots support leading up to the primary, expected in June 2013.

Bolling was supposed to be “next in line” for the governorship. That’s because he graciously agreed in 2009 to wait four years rather than challenge now-Gov. Bob McDonnell, also a Republican, for the nomination.

“There’s no doubt that Ken Cuccinelli is a great conservative. . . .BUT this was a large move against someone who has done the party so well over the past few years and put Virginia ahead of ambition,” Republican Vincent Harris, founder of the Northern Virginia blog “Too Conservative,” wrote Thursday.

There’s also irritation over Cuccinelli’s plan to ignore longtime Virginia precedent by remaining in office to the end of his term. Past attorneys general of both parties, including McDonnell, have stepped down early to avoid conflicts of interest during a campaign.

What’s more important, though, is the threat that Cuccinelli poses to the formula of success McDonnell crafted for the Republicans in his 2009 landslide victory — a strategy that Bolling has promised to follow.

Cuccinelli and Bolling don’t differ that much in their positions on the issues. But the attorney general is confrontational and edgy, while the lieutenant governor tends to be low-key and collaborative. And they vary greatly on which issues they choose to emphasize.

“Either Cuccinelli or Bolling would be a conservative governor, but their styles would be very different,” said Bob Holsworth, a commentator and former political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Bolling, like McDonnell, has played down hot-button social controversies, such as abortion and same-sex marriage. He emphasizes “kitchen table issues,” such as roads and schools, and has been McDonnell’s “chief jobs creation officer.”

In a strongly worded statement criticizing Cuccinelli’s announcement, the lieutenant governor stressed the need to stick to McDonnell’s approach, including appealing to the center.

“Governor McDonnell and I gave Virginia Republicans a blueprint for how to win statewide elections,” Bolling said. “I have worked with Republicans and Democrats to get things done for the people of Virginia. That experience and record of results enables me to reach out to conservative and independent voters.”

By contrast, Cuccinelli has gained a passionate, national following among conservatives almost entirely by championing the ideological cause of states’ rights. It hasn’t accomplished much of substance — but it made him famous.

While Bolling was plodding around the state promoting economic development, Cuccinelli grabbed headlines by being the first state attorney general to sue the federal government over the health-care reform law. His suit passed one judicial hurdle but then went nowhere; an appeals court tossed it out, saying Virginia had no standing to sue.

Cuccinelli declined to join 26 other states in a Florida suit against the health law. That’s the one that the U.S. Supreme Court recently decided to hear.

The attorney general also urged the state’s public universities to remove policies banning discrimination against gay people. That prompted McDonnell to warn state employees that they’d be fired or reprimanded if they engaged in any discrimination.

“It’s far more noise than substance, but it gets attention. It appeals to a certain percentage of voters,” said Toni-Michelle Travis, a government professor at George Mason University and editor of the Almanac of Virginia Politics.

As for the Democrats, they’re welcoming Cuccinelli’s bid as a sign that the GOP is about to tear itself apart. But their satisfaction could ultimately turn to despair if Cuccinelli ends up winning both the nomination and the election. A firebrand in the governor’s office could do more than just make noise.