Nationally, Republicans are engaged in a battle to recast their image, worried that the party faces long-term problems unless they retool their message to appeal to a wider swath of voters. But in Virginia, the party’s worst fears about the future are being realized, with this year’s governor’s race looking as if it may divide the Republican party in two.
Republicans are viewing the governor’s race with increased urgency. Conservatives are turning against popular GOP Gov. Bob McDonnell, who was frequently mentioned as a 2016 presidential candidate. The state limits the governor to one term. Many of the party’s business allies are breaking with Ken Cuccinelli, the GOP’s nominee for governor, dissatisfied with his focus on polarizing social issues in kicking off his campaign. And the state’s GOP lieutenant governor, Bill Bolling, is openly mulling a third-party bid, which is looking more plausible by the day.
“Bob McDonnell and I -- somehow in today's Republican Party we've become squishy, RINO, Republican wimps. I still don't understand how that happened,” Bolling said. “In many ways, I think our party is in search of an identity. Are we going to be a party that's more interested in rigid ideological confrontation? Or are we going to be a party that's focused on getting things done?”
The stakes are high. Virginia is one of only two governor’s races in the country in 2013, and it’s the only one shaping up to be competitive. Virginia is a battleground state that traditionally leaned Republican, but a diversifying electorate has made the state a battleground. The playbook to win in Virginia, a state that President Obama carried in 2008 and 2012, is based on emphasizing “mainstream” credentials, according to Bolling.
But Cuccinelli has cast himself as a confrontational and principled conservative who underscores social issues that many Virginia business leaders object to. He appeared on an Iowa radio talk show to talk about contraception, instead of promoting the GOP’s message on job creation in the Old Dominion. Meanwhile, conservatives have been lambasting McDonnell over his tax plan because it raises taxes, even as business leaders hail it as the first serious attempt at fixing Northern Virginia’s aging highway infrastructure in nearly three decades.
National Review called on conservatives to view the plan as a “black mark” on McDonnell’s resume. RedState’s Erick Erickson called McDonnell a liar, putting a serious check on any presidential ambition the governor might have. The Wall Street Journal ripped his tax plan. And, most notably, Cuccinelli called the plan an “enormous tax increase” that Virginians can’t afford.
One GOP strategist with ties to Old Dominion politics praised Cuccinelli’s opposition to the governor, saying that denouncing the plan is the only way the attorney general could differentiate himself from his Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe, who sided with McDonnell and even helped win Democratic support for the bill in the state’s General Assembly.
“When you start blurring the distinctions between the two major parties, it just becomes a big major blob,” the strategist said.
But many business leaders see things differently. They argue that an emphasis on social issues, such as opposition to gay marriage and abortion rights, costs the state economically. Highly qualified job recruits have chosen to take positions elsewhere because of the socially conservative reputation the state is earning, said Gary Shapiro, the head of the Consumer Electronics Association and an ardent opponent of Cuccinelli's.
"There's no way that I or most other business leaders could support him. The Republican Party itself has a problem this year, which is that it ran as very anti-gay, anti-immigration, and very anti-woman,” Shapiro said.
Bobbie Kilberg, the president and CEO of the Northern Virginia Technology Council, is opposed to voting for a Democrat, but she’s not satisfied with Cuccinelli because of his views on social issues and because she supports the transportation bill that McDonnell shepherded through the Legislature. She argued that the Northern Virginia business community is choked by traffic. Opposing the bill was “inexcusable,” she said.
Shapiro and Kilberg attended a meeting set up by the Republican Governors Association to let business leaders meet Cuccinelli, but instead of softball questions, they openly expressed their frustration with his conservative social views. News of the contentious meeting was first reported by Politico.
“I think an independent Republican can win if that person can secure a majority of the independent voters in Virginia,” Kilberg said. “I think a majority of independent voters in Virginia are center-right. They are moderate-to-conservative in their policy views. So I think Virginia has a chance as a purple state to field a Republican candidate who shares that philosophy.”
Cuccinelli has deflected the criticism, touting his record in winning a competitive election as attorney general and as a former member of the state Legislature from Northern Virginia. Still, the confrontation with the more-moderate business wing of the state GOP touched off talk of a third-party candidacy that had been simmering under the surface of Virginia politics since Cuccinelli became the party’s gubernatorial standard-bearer.
Bolling will decide in the next few weeks whether he’ll run as an independent. He thinks there’s an opening for a third-party candidate, but he said he’s not sure he can reach the 35 percent threshold needed to win in a three-way race.
“I’m not interested in being a spoiler of some sort,” he said. He would face challenges raising the $10 million or $15 million it would take to run and possibly win.
“Why does the Republican Party exist? We exist to win elections and then govern the state consistent with our principles,” Bolling said. “But you can't govern if you can't win.”