GOP at a crossroads

Published 11:07 am Saturday, December 1, 2012

A fine Virginia public servant threw in the political towel this week, raising anew a question asked often since the Nov. 6 presidential election: Are Republicans more interested in rigid ideology than in winning elections?

Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling’s decision to abandon his 2013 gubernatorial bid before it ever got started crystallizes the conundrum facing the modern Republican Party.

Center-right candidates like Bolling who can win elections in center-right states like Virginia and a center-right country like America cannot do so because they can’t get their own party’s nomination — unless they are willing to pander to hardliners on issues that will get a Republican mugged in a general election.

Bolling saw the handwriting on the wall when state party operatives last summer chose to nominate their 2013 gubernatorial nominee at a convention rather than in a primary. It was a move clearly calculated to nominate Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a darling of the Tea Party who infuriated Bolling and party moderates by bucking the GOP pecking order and declaring his candidacy for governor. Bolling, ever the team player, had patiently waited his turn behind Bob McDonnell. Cuccinelli was unwilling to do the same.

Much emphasis has been placed on the GOP decision to hold a convention rather than a primary, but the truth is that Bolling was doomed in either. He would have had a slightly better chance in a primary, but the nomination process is stacked in favor of ideologues like Cuccinelli.

Activists pick primary winners. Independents, and moderates in both parties, decide general elections.

Cuccinelli might win the governorship anyway, but if he does, it will be because of a weak Democratic opponent in Terry McAuliffe. Had popular U.S. Sen. Mark Warner sought the job and carried the Democratic banner, Cuccinelli wouldn’t have had a chance.

The influence of the Tea Party — and related marginalization of Republicans — has renewed the age-old question of whether a third party can be viable in this country.

Bolling, in announcing his decision this week, left cracked the door to an independent candidacy for governor next November.

In the end, he’s probably too loyal a Republican to take the risk, but Bolling the independent would test an interesting theory: that swing-state moderates might just coalesce around a platform of job creation, smaller government and deference to individual preference on social issues to form a winning coalition at the ballot box.