Coming off last year's highly competitive and obsessively scrutinized Virginia gubernatorial race, voters and those observing the commonwealth's politics may be tempted to kick back and take a breather from the high-stakes swing state. But there's plenty at stake in the Old Dominion, and—unless they opt for a course correction—it appears likely that flawed candidates and a nominating process that favors the extreme will continue to dog Republicans' chances of winning competitive races in the coming year.
Democrats swept the GOP in the three statewide elections last year, led by Terry McAuliffe's victory over Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli in the gubernatorial race. And on top of their electoral losses last fall, Republicans will see Gov. Bob McDonnell end his term just ahead of a possible indictment.
But 2014 will present a range of new opportunities for Virginia Republicans to reclaim their footing, starting with special state Senate elections to replace Lt. Gov.-elect Ralph Northam and Attorney General-elect Mark Herring, which will determine partisan control of the chamber, all the way up to the U.S. Senate race at top of the ticket this November. The million-dollar question is whether Republicans will double down on their nominating processes and rightward bend at the risk of losing winnable races, or whether they will opt for a course correction to avoid the mistakes of 2013.
Comments made to Politico by Virginia Republicans in early December at their annual retreat in Hot Springs indicate they have no plans for a course correction. State House Speaker William Howell said reports of Republicans' demise are "premature," and Virginia Republican Party Chair Pat Mullins said that claims Cuccinelli was too conservative "is false narrative by false prophets.... Republicans do not win when we are mini-Democrats or Democrat Lite."
Former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., is critical of that view. "The party has not kept up to date with what's happened" over the past few years, Davis said. "Until you can reconcile the competing factions and hang the welcome mat out" to a broader coalition of voters in Virginia, Davis says, Republicans will continue to suffer from "self-inflicted wounds."
Special Senate Elections
State Sen. Barbara Favola (D) believes any hope for bipartisan compromise, whether it be on Medicaid expansion or mental-health services, rests on Democrats' ability to retain their hold on the state Senate. To do so will require keeping the seats vacated by Northam (Senate District 6) and Herring (Senate District 33).
Favola says if Democrats can hold those two seats Republicans in the House of Delegates "will have to deal with us" and Democrats will "have a point of leverage" that could force some compromise.
McAuliffe took both districts in November 2013 by a healthy margin, winning Herring's district in the Northern Virginia suburbs with roughly 56 percent of the vote, and securing Northam's district encompassing the Eastern Shore and part of Norfolk with 53 percent of the vote. President Obama carried both districts in 2008 and 2012.
The special election for Northam's 6th Senate District seat is scheduled for next Tuesday, and the party's chosen nominees, Democratic Del. Lynwood Lewis and Republican businessman Wayne Coleman have been busy on the campaign trail and on the airwaves with TV ads. The Jan. 21 contest to replace Herring in the 33rd Senate District is shaping up to be a three-way race between Democrat Jennifer Wexton, Republican John Whitbeck, and Republican Del. Joe May, who is running as an independent.
If Democrats slip in either race, McAuliffe would become just the fourth Democratic governor in 2014 to preside over a legislature controlled entirely by Republicans, joining the ranks of Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe, and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.
Republican Rep. Frank Wolf's retirement announcement in December nearly guarantees the prospect of yet another electoral showdown in the state. The 10th Congressional District includes parts of Loudoun, Fairfax, and Prince William counties in the Northern Virginia suburbs, as well as parts of Clarke, Fauquier, Frederick and Warren counties to the south and west. Loudoun, Prince William and Fairfax have been all key swing counties in recent statewide elections, and Loudoun and Fairfax also rank first and third among the nation's wealthiest counties, respectively.
On the Republican side, Del. Barbara Comstock, Del. Timothy Hugo, state Sen. Richard Black, and businessman Keith Fimian have been mentioned as possible candidates. Black has already formed an exploratory committee, and Comstock and Hugo have long been rumored to be interested in running to replace Wolf when he retires. Former Democratic Rep. Artur Davis, who moved to Virginia from Alabama, declined a possible bid in late December.
Comstock is considered to be a rising star in the Republican Party and would bring considerable experience and resources to the race. The second term delegate's political résumé is long. She was a former head of the Justice Department's Office of Public Affairs under the George W. Bush administration, a former research director at the Republican National Committee, a friend of Republican strategist Karl Rove, and, as a Massachusetts native herself, was considered to be in Mitt Romney's "inner circle" dating back to 2007 leading up to his first presidential bid.
Just last year Comstock made an appearance on the national stage as one of few state legislators granted a speaking slot at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.
Given her gold-plated bonafides and easy fit into the RNC's Project GROW aimed at recruiting more female candidates, Comstock would enter the race with a running start. But a Republican nominating convention -- which appears likely -- could throw a wrench in Comstock's path if she chooses to run. Black, for his part, is a former Marine who previously served in the House of Delegates and says "I am what I am. I am pro-life, I am pro-gun, I am pro-free enterprise—these things are not going to change."
On the Democratic side, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors member John Foust announced he would challenge Wolf the week before he announced his retirement, and he joins a primary alongside Fairfax lawyer Richard Bolger and Leesburg architect Sam Kubba.
Foust says since the day he launched his campaign, "it has been absolutely crazy. I would say I'm getting an enormous amount of support. People are calling generally, offering to help," and says Wolf's retirement "seems to have energized people even more."
Foust said he "had no reason to think" Wolf was planning on retiring this cycle and was surprised when he made the announcement. "It's very exciting to be, you know, one of the leading candidates in an open seat," Foust said.
Electorally, Foust delivered the strongest performance of any Democratic candidate running for a contested spot on Fairfax County Board of Supervisors in 2011, and became the first-ever Democrat to win reelection to the seat, winning 60.7 percent of the vote and every precinct in the swing district. Regarding the Democratic primary in the race, Favola, whose Senate district overlaps with Foust's supervisor seat, stated with certainty: "I'm sure Mr. Foust will win that."
If former RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie pulls the trigger on a challenge to Sen. Mark Warner, he too will quickly find himself staring down the barrel of a Republican nominating convention slated for early June in Roanoke.
Gillespie has already faced criticism for his status as a Republican operative and Washington insider, but he could present a moderate, accomplished alternative to Warner, whose strong approval ratings have scared off other potential candidates.
Eager to get his party back in the winner's circle, Davis, the former congressman and onetime chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, is leading efforts to create a PAC in the wake of his party's November losses that "will advocate for statewide candidates who he says will be less extreme on such issues as abortion rights and more electable."
Davis says the PAC will be "completely Virginia centric," but will be more of a "three-year project" inspired by his candidate recruitment days as chairman of the NRCC, with an eye toward recruiting good candidates for state Senate seats up for election in 2015. Such candidates could then feasibly use their spot as a stepping stone to higher office come 2017.
Davis didn't articulate any specific plans to get involved in next year's U.S. Senate race or others in the coming cycle, but he doesn't think there's a quick fix on the horizon. "My guess is yes, they're in trouble for a while," he said. "Given the current leadership of the state party, it's difficult to see how this ends quickly."