One of the marquee races of the post-2012 world is turning out to be a real doozy.
By the end of the business day Wednesday, the 2013 Virginia gubernatorial race descended into total chaos, turning what was already expected to be a high profile contest into fight that could lay bare the Republican Party’s struggles following President Obama’s reelection, with the candidate originally backed by sitting Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) taking on one of the tea party’s brightest stars.
Democrats aren’t letting Republicans have all the fun. Their attempt at drama-free nomination process after 2009’s brutal primary left them battered ran into a snag when an ideological fight threatened to break out.
First, the Republicans. Wednesday began with Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling — the man McDonnell backed to replace him — dropping out of the gubernatorial race after state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli effectively stacked the deck against him.
Cuccinelli was the favorite for the nomination anyway, thanks to his national profile as a tea party leader and conservative legal mind. But Bolling isn’t going quietly. In separate interviews Wednesday, he both refused to endorse Cuccinelli (Bolling told the Richmond Times-Dispatch he has “serious reservations” about Cuccinelli’s “ability to effectively and responsibly lead the state”) and to rule out running as an independent. Bolling canceled his appearance at an annual state GOP retreat this weekend and refused to quash rumors he’ll run as an independent to the Roanoke Times.
“I don’t have any current intentions to run as an independent candidate for governor, but I learned a long time ago in politics that you shouldn’t ever say never,” Bolling said.
Democrats are thrilled with the news that a Republican civil war could be afoot. But they cautioned that the Virginia gubernatorial race is always going to be pricey and tough. Cucinnelli certainly helps Democrats tell a story that the GOP has gone too far to the right in a state that’s gone blue in the last two presidential elections and just elected another Democrat to the Senate.
“It is disappointing that more mainstream Virginia Republicans are being driven out of leadership by the far-right,” said former DNC chair Terry McAuliffe, who’s been up and running as a gubernatorial candidate for a while now. “Virginia voters have repeatedly made clear that they prefer mainstream leaders building consensus instead of politicians pursuing their own ideological agenda.”
The Cuccinelli-McAuliffe storyline was one most observers expected to be following come 2013. But it’s at least possible that McAuliffe will have to fight an ideological battle of his own if he wants to make to to the general election. Former Rep. Tom Perriello (D), a progressive and leader at the Center for American Progress, is considering throwing his hat into the ring for the Democratic nomination, potentially setting up a nomination fight between the left and more center wings of the Democratic Party.
Democrats have seen that movie before. In 2009, McAuliffe ran in an three-way primary that saw him attacked from the left. He lost and state Sen. Creigh Deeds won the nomination, going on to lose to McDonnell by double digits.
The 2013 Virginia governor’s race was always going to be one to watch. But Wednesday suggests it may be the kind of race you can’t take your eyes off.