WASHINGTON -- The split between hard-right conservative Republicans and mainstream party moderates will be on vivid display in Virginia over the next few months, a struggle thatll be watched closely as key to the partys hopes for a national revival.
The virtually certain nomination of conservative Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli as the Republican gubernatorial nominee has party centrists concerned that theyll lose a winnable contest. Theyve seen Republicans fall in other states where ultra-conservatives ran their favorite candidates but alienated the middle-of-the-road voters crucial to winning general elections.
The mainstream hope is Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who plans to announce Thursday whether hell bolt the party and run as an independent. Should Bolling run it would trigger a bitter campaign that would illustrate day after day the schism dividing the party.
Bolling seemed a logical choice, the kind of mainstream center-right candidate in the tradition of statewide winners such as Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, former Republican Sen. John Warner or Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, both former governors.
Bolling was the next in line to head the Republican ticket until Cuccinelli surprised the states political establishment by launching his own effort, fueled by his strong corps of grassroots supporters. Cuccinelli, a throwback to a time a generation ago when Virginia routinely elected staunch conservatives, all but locked up the nomination when the party decided to choose its nominee in a state convention, where ideological activists can dominate, rather than a primary, where moderates would have a much larger voice.
Republicans are watching closely, and in some cases, nervously. The triumph of the hard right over Republican establishment candidates has cost the party Senate seats in at least five states, most recently in Missouri and Indiana, that it was expected to win.
The toll has been striking. Had the GOP taken those five seats, the Senate would be 50-50 today, instead of being dominated by Democrats.
A lot of Republicans are worried Virginia will be the conservative crusaders next victim, as the fiercely anti-Obama Cuccinelli faces the same problem as candidates in other states who were darlings of the far right: He could be painted as an extremist, particularly in a state thats voted twice for Obama and is more purple now than solid Republican red.
Cuccinelli issued a legal opinion authorizing law enforcement to inquire about the immigration status of anyone they stopped. He advised public colleges and universities to rescind policies barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. He filed suit against the federal government, challenging its efforts to curb global warming by regulating greenhouse gases. He was the first state official to challenge the 2010 health care law in court.
Cuccinelli is too easy to portray as out of touch with the mainstream, said former New Hampshire Republican chairman Fergus Cullen. He and some others are frustrated, because Virginia could be an important momentum-maker at a time the party badly needs one.
This race is going to be 80 percent national, 20 percent local, said former Virginia U.S. Rep. Tom Davis.
Democrats are seen as vulnerable. Opponents will paint the all-but-certain Democratic nominee former Democratic National Party chairman Terry McAuliffe as more of a national liberal figure. Foes have an opportunity to define him, as a Quinnipiac poll last month found 60 percent of Virginians didnt know enough about him to form an opinion.