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Bolling to decide whether to make run

RICHMOND—This is no small decision that awaits Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling by Thursday. To run or not to run: that is the question.

His answer is likely to be the single most determinative action of this year’s governor’s race.

As a county supervisor, a state senator and through seven years a heartbeat away from residing in the Executive Mansion, Bolling has been as loyal a Republican soldier as you could find.

Now, he feels elbowed out of a shot at being governor by a Republican Party that has lurched too far right to be electable.

But in many ways, if Bolling misses out, he has only himself to blame.

How did we get to this point?

William T. Bolling trusted the system. He was willing to wait his turn.

In 2009, after his first term in the largely ceremonial job of lieutenant governor, Bolling yielded the Republican gubernatorial nomination to an ambitious, socially conservative, hard-charging state attorney general, Bob McDonnell. In exchange for holding the door for McDonnell atop a GOP ticket, Bolling accepted McDonnell’s assurance that he’d back him next time around.

Bolling didn’t account for the wolfish ambition of another socially conservative, hard-charging attorney general swept into office as part of 2009’s stunningly successful GOP ticket: Ken Cuccinelli. Cuccinelli for two years downplayed his interest in a gubernatorial run, hinting that he would seek re-election, but never ruled out a race for governor.

From the outset, the deep adoration Virginia’s fledgling tea party groups showed for Cuccinelli was vivid. Tea party members’ favored yellow Revolutionary War-era “Don’t Tread On Me” flags featuring a coiled serpent were ubiquitous at Cuccinelli speeches and rallies across Virginia. The 2009 statewide GOP convention was a somnolent, scripted affair until Cuccinelli took the stage. A deafening war whoop from thousands filled the Richmond Coliseum.

Some of those same Cuccinelli supporters got active in local Republican committees and brought along like-minded friends—lots of them. Over the next three years, they consolidated power from the bottom up until they had a majority of seats on the Republican Party of Virginia’s ruling central committee, often unseating committee members they dismissed as “the Republican establishment.”

Last June, they rescinded a 2011 central committee vote to nominate the statewide GOP slate in an open primary and instead hold a closed convention, just like the noisy pageant that nominated their hero, Cuccinelli, in 2009.

Bolling’s representatives sat ashen-faced in the rear of the cramped room as the committee voted. They knew the business-friendly Bolling, the ultimate establishment Republican, had no shot in a Cuccinelli convention.

But November’s presidential election offered one last chance. McDonnell endorsed Mitt Romney during the primaries and became a leading proxy for the eventual GOP nominee throughout the campaign. McDonnell was considered as a Romney running mate, and it seemed assured that a prominent spot would await McDonnell in a Romney White House. The prospect of McDonnell departing and Bolling serving out McDonnell’s final year as governor represented a chance to turn the tables on Cuccinelli, making him a challenger to an incumbent GOP governor.

That hope died when President Barack Obama became the first Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt to carry Virginia in back-to-back presidential victories. Later that month, Bolling withdrew from the GOP race.

In exiting, Bolling made it clear that Cuccinelli would never get his blessing. He ominously left open the prospect of an independent candidacy, and he questioned the ideological direction of the GOP.

“We’ve got to decide: Do we want to be a party that engages in the great ideological debates of the day or do we actually want to be a party that wins elections, earns the right to lead and then leads effectively,” he said that day.

To tea party activists like Virginia Beach’s Karen Miner Hurd, the answer is clear.

“Some in the Republican Party think it’s just a name you apply to a majority. Winning is not just about who has the majority. It’s about whose policies you put in place,” she said last week.

She called the coming election a “struggle for the soul of the Republican Party.”

Should Bolling re-enter the race Thursday, he would bring with him the richest portfolio of any statewide independent candidate since former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder briefly tried it in the 1994 U.S. Senate race. Polling by Quinnipiac University last month showed former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe, who is unopposed for his party’s nomination, tied with Cuccinelli in a head-to-head race, but gaining a marginal lead with Bolling running.

If Bolling runs, he knows up front the disadvantages ahead.

Without a major party behind him, Bolling would lack the ready millions of dollars’ worth of direct and in-kind support, organizing capability, coordinated campaign activity and legions of volunteers McAuliffe and Cuccinelli will command.

Since the modern two-party era began after Reconstruction, Virginia has elected 32 governors: 26 Democrats and six Republicans.

None were independents.

 

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