Virginia Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling continues to keep the possibility open that he'd run an independent gubernatorial campaign after dropping out of the Republican primary against Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the heavy favorite to win at the May statewide convention.
But talking to four prominent former Republican office holders in the commonwealth, winning as an independent for Bolling would be a gargantuan challenge.
"I think it would be very tough in this environment," said former U.S. Rep. Tom Davis, a moderate Republican from Northern Virginia.
Davis himself abandoned a run for U.S. Senate in 2008 when the party opted for a nominating convention over a statewide primary. The man who won that convention, former Gov. Jim Gilmore, dismissed outright the idea of an independent winning.
"Can't happen," he said, later adding that if Bolling entered the general election as an independent, "I think that would ensure the election of Terry McAuliffe." McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chairman, is running by himself for his party’s nomination. To Gilmore, there is not "room for a Republican moderate" in the GOP field to challenge Cuccinelli directly at a convention.
However, he did not assign that label to Bolling. "I do not think he is like Ken Cuccinelli," said Gilmore. "I do think he is a different kind of conservative."
Former U.S. Rep. Virgil Goode, who ran as the Constitution Party presidential nominee this year, explained that one challenge for an independent candidate running statewide is raising enough money just to set up a field operation capable of earning the candidate a spot on the ballot.
"Well, I think it's a tough road for any independent to run unless they have a tremendous amount of financial backing," he said, later adding, "I think the danger of the two parties is, they have a big fundraising network that really helps them get their message out."
Even though it takes 10,000 valid voter petitions to earn a spot on a general election ballots, Goode proposed that "you've got to get 25,000" just to make sure there are enough valid signatures. Not meeting that threshold kept both Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich off the commonwealth's primary ballot during the 2012 presidential ballot. Other presidential candidates, including Virginia resident and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, didn't even bother to turn in signatures. Regardless, Goode viewed Cuccinelli as too strong for someone to challenge him for Republican votes.
"I think (Cuccinelli) has got a lot of conservative support and I don't think an independent candidate, unless they had a whole of a lot of money, would have much impact," he added. Whether there is room for someone other than Bolling to win either party's nomination or mount a credible challenge as an independent depends on who is opining. The consensus, though, is that it's difficult at best for someone other than Cuccinelli or McAuliffe to have a realistic shot at the general election.
One of Gilmore's sparring partners from his days in the executive mansion, former state Sen. John Chichester, promoted the idea that a centrist who could run between Cuccinelli or McAuliffe on the ideological spectrum could win. Chichester, who unsuccessfully ran as the GOP nominee for lieutenant governor in 1985 against future Democratic Gov. Doug Wilder, is advocating for a candidate to run as a member of what he called the "Virginia Party".
"They lean Republican. They're socially moderate," he said. "They're conservative fiscally and they, they have a soft touch." Such a candidate is "not strident," added Chichester. "He doesn't meddle into the personal affairs of people and he doesn't embrace labor and say that we need to do away with the right-to-work law." Chichester declined to speculate on who, exactly, would fit that mold in the modern GOP other than a generic business person. However, he did not include Bolling as such a candidate.
"I never viewed him as a person who had any moderation to him," said Chichester, who served with Bolling in the state Senate during the 1990s and early 2000s. "Bill Bolling espoused the same philosophy as Ken Cuccinelli, he just didn't stand up on the floor and say anything about it." Chichester served as chairman of the state Senate Finance Committee, which is arguably the most powerful position in the upper chamber of the General Assembly. Back then, he considered Bolling to be more of a back-bencher while Cuccinelli took more forceful stands. "I really didn't know he was there," said Chichester, adding that Bolling largely just "voted no on anything to do with taxes."
"Bill Bolling let somebody else take the lead," opined the former state senator from Fredericksburg. "You never saw Bill Bolling take the lead on anything that I can recall." Meanwhile, Cuccinelli "took the lead on a lot of things," said Chichester. "They didn't make a lot of sense on some of them... (but) he didn't have any fear about airing it."