Virginia lieutenant governor Bill Bolling's announcement Wednesday that he was suspending his campaign for the state's governor's race came as a surprise, but was a concession to political reality. After Republicans opted to choose their nominee at a convention dominated by the most hearty conservative activists, Bolling's odds at the nomination were very long, even with the nominal support of Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.
His decision makes it very likely that the 2013 Virginia gubernatorial matchup is set, pairing feisty Democratic partisan Terry McAuliffe against outspoken conservative warrior Ken Cuccinelli. There's not much room for the growing number of Virginia voters in the middle. The matchup is shaping up to be a departure from recent gubernatorial races, when Democrats nominated business-friendly pragmatists (Mark Warner, Tim Kaine, Creigh Deeds) and successful Republican nominees played down ideology over economic competence (McDonnell, 2009)
Bolling, even in his hasty departure from the race, sounded a cautionary note about his rival's candidacy, noting he was leaving to avoid a divisive nomination fight and not endorsing Cuccinelli. He said he would be involved in the 2013 campaigns, but suggested he'd work as an independent voice rather than a Cuccinelli ally.
"I intend to remain actively involved in the 2013 campaigns - perhaps not as the Republican nominee for Governor, but as a more independent voice, making certain that the candidates keep their focus on the important issues facing our state and offer a positive and realistic vision for effectively and responsibly leading Virginia," Bolling said in the statement.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Governors' Association responded to the news with a statement attacking Cuccinelli as an extremist, emphasizing McAuliffe's business background, while conveniently avoiding mentions of his time as a partisan warrior chairing the Democratic National Committee and as a leading fundraiser for the national party.
Bolling's decision could prove to be a blessing for Cuccinelli -- if he uses it to his advantage. Instead of a messy convention fight where Cuccinelli would play to a hard-core conservative base for the first half of the election year, he now has the ability to run a campaign more like McDonnell's -- focusing on economic stewardship and maintaining the legacy of a popular outgoing Republican governor. But he's never been one to shy from an ideological fight, and even if he moderates his tone, Democrats will be aggressive in using his past comments against him.
Some hard-core partisans and ideologues also have ample political sensibility. Sen. Pat Toomey, a former Club for Growth president who led the charge against ideologically-wayward Republicans, developed a pragmatic streak in running for the Senate in the Democratic-leaning state of Pennsylvania. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick tempered his criticism of Bain Capital during the presidential campaign, knowing the company was based in his home state.
The Virginia governor's race will be a pivotal test of which candidate is best able to channel their inner political pragmatism, despite reputations to the contrary. It's a prerequisite to win in the emerging battleground state of Virginia, where voters are as independent-minded as anywhere in the country.
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