Virginia Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling talks with the editorial board at The Daily Progress in Charlottsville, Va., earlier this year. (Sabrina Schaeffer/Associated Press)

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.”

The state party and Bolling’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Bolling abandoned his bid for governor last year after Cuccinelli outmaneuvered him for the nomination. Since then, the lifelong Republican said he would not endorse Cuccinelli and weighed an independent run. He has spoken approvingly of McAuliffe, and vice versa, with the Democrat saying publicly that he would like to have Bolling in his cabinet.

But Bolling’s phone call to TechPAC Chairman Dendy Young was the first indication that he might be actively promoting McAuliffe’s candidacy. It came just weeks after Bolling’s longtime political consultant, Boyd Marcus, endorsed McAuliffe and went to work for his campaign.

Three Republicans close to the situation said that Mullins was prepared to make a statement regarding Bolling about mid-week, partly at the urging of grass-roots activists, who have wanted the party to speak out against Bolling for months.

“They’ve been getting a lot of push-back from the grassroots,” said one person in a GOP leadership position. “They felt like they had to address it.”

Mullins never issued the statement. One of the three Republicans said the reason remained unclear to him, and he thought it was possible that the statement was still coming. The other two said party leaders decided that doing so would only bring more attention to Bolling and contribute to what they say is an unfair notion: that the party has become too conservative for “moderates” like Bolling.

Until this year, when he came out in favor of Medicaid expansion and a tax-heavy transportation plan while mulling over an independent run, Bolling had a voting record as conservative as Cuccinelli’s. He’d been dubbed the “Hanover Hun,” a reference to the county he represented in the state Senate, for his opposition to abortion and gun control.

But the former county supervisor has a pragmatic streak honed after years of working on the nuts-and-bolts issues of local government. He also has a more conciliatory style than does Cuccinelli, who gained an avid tea party following with hard-fought legal battles against Obamacare and other examples of what he called “federal overreach.”

Gary Byler, a longtime Republican activist from Virginia Beach, said that he spoke to Mullins on Saturday and that they shared their dismay at Bolling’s recent actions.

“There’s a little bit of sadness,” Byler said, “that [Bolling] is that personally hurt [by losing the nomination to Cuccinelli] that he would not assist with the movement that he has been an integral part of for the past two decades.”

David Ray, a member of the state central committee for 21 years, said he did not think the party would gain anything by publicly criticizing Bolling.

“When all is said and done, both candidates, Ken Cuccinelli and Terry McAuliffe, run their own campaigns,” Ray said. “I don’t see a lot of value in spending a lot of time discussing what Bill Bolling thinks.”