In the first major GOP primary fight after the 2012 race, it seems the right wing of the Republican Party has prevailed once again.
As their party wrestles nationally with how to appeal to a broader electorate, Virginia Republicans are all-but-guaranteed to see one of the most divisive conservatives in the nation as their gubernatorial nominee in 2013.
Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling — who had the backing of Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) — dropped out of the governor’s race Wednesday, clearing the way for Republican State Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.
Cuccinelli is a tea party super star, known for drawing large crowds at national conservative events. As Virginia’s top lawyer, he was the first to sue the feds over ‘Obamacare’ and he’s taken on climate science and abortion access in controversial public fights.
The Republican’s public persona hews toward the far-right. Just this week, Cuccinelli drew criticism when he appeared to agree with fringe conservatives who say President Obama won on Nov. 6 thanks to voter fraud.
Bolling’s decision to leave the race follows polling showing him well behind Cuccinelli among Republicans as well as a move by the state party to shift the statewide nomination process from a primary to a state convention, putting more power in the hands of conservative activists more likely to support Cuccinelli.
Democrats say the rise of Cuccinelli is proof the GOP hasn’t learned the lessons of 2012.
“Ken Cuccinelli would be the most extreme major party nominee for governor in Virginia’s history,” Kate Hansen, spokesperson for the Democratic Governors Association, said in a statement. “He has spent the last four years launching anti-science, anti-equality, and fringe partisan crusades at the expense of doing the people’s business.”
Most expect the Democratic nominee to be former DNC chair and Clinton family ally Terry McAuliffe. (Other Democratic names have been mentioned, such as former Rep. Tom Perriello, but McAuliffe is currently a declared candidate and is building a campaign infrastructure.) The Republican take is that despite Cuccinelli’s divisive reputation, a race with McAulliffe as the Democrat still favors the GOP.
“Key point to me is Ken Cuccinelli has won multiple state senate elections in a Fairfax County swing district. He also has won statewide,” said one knowledgeable Virginia Republican. “Terry McAuliffe has run one race in his life, and it went over about as well as a fur coat at a PETA convention.”
McDonnell, the man Cuccinelli hopes to replace, ran and won in 2009 despite a history of divisive social conservatism. Democrats say that, in Cuccinelli, they have another opponent on their hands in the model of Todd Akin in Missouri or Richard Mourdock in Indiana, who even red state voters found unpalatable.
For a national GOP desperate to expand the tent in order to be competitive in future presidential elections, seeing Cuccinelli’s star rise might be viewed as a bit counterproductive. But for conservatives hoping to battle back against the drive toward moderation, Cuccinelli’s ascendance is a sign that the Republican right wing still holds the power, at least for the moment.