RICHMOND — With the Virginia Senate evenly split with 20 Republicans and 20 Democrats last year, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling was the reliable Republican tiebreaker. He broke a record 28 of them, siding every time with the GOP.
But now that his party has spurned him, and the once-loyal Republican is exploring an independent bid for governor, many are wondering whether he’ll become something of a maverick.
In the month since he dropped out of the race for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, stating that he would not endorse rival Ken Cuccinelli II and hinting that he might run as an independent, Bolling has become uncharacteristically vocal on a number of issues.
He has set himself apart from the normally close political ally he would like to succeed, term-limited Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), staking out positions against uranium mining, charging tolls on a portion of Interstate 95 and arming schoolteachers.
And just last week, Bolling disclosed that he has been conducting polls and meeting with business leaders to weigh support for him in a three-way race against the likely Republican and Democratic nominees: Cuccinelli, the Republican attorney general, and Terry McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chairman.
How Bolling’s new independent streak plays out in the Senate is one of the biggest question marks hanging over the 45-day session that starts Wednesday.
“This is a 20-20 Senate with a wild card,” said Bob Holsworth, a former Virginia Commonwealth University professor. “Here you have Bolling — he’s against the tolls, he’s against uranium mining, he’s against arming the teachers. He’s a free agent.”
Free agency is something new for the 55-year-old Bolling, a longtime party loyalist who put aside his own plans to run for governor four years ago to allow McDonnell to seek the nomination unopposed.
But when his plan to become the GOP nominee in 2013 hit unexpected obstacles — first, Cuccinelli jumped into the race, then the Republican State Central Committee switched the nomination method to benefit the tea party favorite — the mild-mannered lieutenant governor found his “independent voice.”
“My focus is solely on what’s best for Virginia,” Bolling said in an interview last week in his Capitol Square office. “It’s not on what’s best for the Republican Party or the Democrat Party. It’s on what’s best for Virginia. I think we need that kind of a more-independent voice in state government. And it’s a little liberating to actually be able to say what you think and not worry about the partisan ramifications of it.”
The issues he’s been vocal about could be among the biggest and most emotional of the session. Among them is the possibility of lifting a 30-year ban on uranium mining to allow Southside Virginia to tap into the country’s largest known uranium deposit. Bolling announced in December that he is opposed to lifting the ban. McDonnell has yet to take a position on the issue.
Another is a bill, filed after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, that calls for arming some teachers or other school staff. Bolling came out against that one day after McDonnell said the commonwealth should at least consider arming teachers.
A more dramatic departure could come in the area of transportation funding, where Republicans and Democrats have been dug in for more than a decade. Republicans have wanted to take existing money from the general fund to pay for roads, while Democrats have sought to raise new revenue. Bolling said he hopes to help broker a compromise this session.
“To solve the problem, I think everybody’s going to have to be willing to compromise,” Bolling said. “We’re going to have to come up with a package that generates some significant new revenue for transportation. That package is probably also going to have to include a greater use of existing revenues for transportation. . . . I look forward to playing an active role in the process of trying to help bring the parties together around a solution.”
Playing the middle of the road on transportation would be a fairly daring position for Virginia’s No. 2 Republican — one that “would seriously undercut the governor and Cuccinelli,” said Bob Roberts, a James Madison University political scientist.
Roberts could see that happening, although he still thinks it highly unlikely that Bolling will go through with an independent bid.
If he does run, Bolling intends to position himself as an “independent Republican,” so some predict that he will not stray too far from the conservative positions he has staked out over the years as lieutenant governor, state senator and a Hanover County supervisor. Last year alone, he sided with Republicans on bills related to voter ID, ultrasound-before-abortion, property rights and right-to-work laws.
“I think he’ll still be dedicated to Republican philosophy,” said former Republican lieutenant governor John H. Hager. “I don’t see him deviating from that.”
Hager added: “I’m sure he’ll speak his mind. I mean, why not?”