Sabato's Crystal Ball

Three’s a Crowd: Bolling Passes on Virginia Gubernatorial Run

Larry J. Sabato, Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley, U.Va. Center for Politics March 12th, 2013

There’s apparently nothing like a Bahamas vacation to remind someone that there’s more to life than politics.

After flirting with an independent bid for governor — and getting away to the Caribbean for a few days to clear his head — Virginia Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) announced that he will not run, leaving the two major-party candidates, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) and former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe (D), in a duel for the Virginia governorship.

After suspending his campaign for the Republican nomination in November — he had no chance to win his party’s nomination after it opted to select its nominee through a convention, rather than a primary — Bolling seriously examined the possibility of running for the state’s chief executive office as an independent. But as he made clear in his statement, while it was possible to run a competitive campaign as an independent, it was much more difficult to actually win.

Foremost among the challenges for an independent candidacy is money. Bolling said that he needed to raise at least $10 million to $15 million to have a shot at victory. But to manage this feat outside the party structure would have been difficult. Surely there were major donors who told Bolling they would consider supporting him. However, without any polls showing Bolling doing better than 15%, financial angels were likely hesitant to wholeheartedly throw their support behind the lieutenant governor. As anyone who has had to fundraise knows, a pledge is much different than a check. And most of the big money folks want to back a winner; they can’t get major appointments and favors from a loser.

Bolling also cited other challenges, ones that were more personal in nature. He was hesitant to “sever [his] longstanding relationship with the Republican Party,” and stated his belief that Virginia politics has become more and more like Washington, an evolution that has made the political process in Richmond much less personally enjoyable. Given the profiles of the two remaining candidates, perhaps Bolling’s fear of the “Washington Way” replacing the “Virginia Way” will prove prescient. Cuccinelli is viewed by many as a conservative ideologue while McAuliffe is considered an outsider who has no experience in Virginia government but plenty as the lead partisan for the national Democratic Party.

The common reaction to Bolling’s decision is that it’s a win for Cuccinelli, because it’s easy to assume that having a Republican independent in the race would split the conservative vote and deliver the governorship to McAuliffe. But it’s also possible that a Bolling candidacy would have ended up splitting the state’s moderate Democrats, Republicans and independents, allowing Cuccinelli to win a three-way race with a devoted base of conservative supporters. With Bolling out, Cuccinelli is the only contender who can continue Virginia’s remarkable run of electing as governor the candidate whose party doesn’t control the White House, a streak that began in 1977 and has continued for nine elections. (Virginia is the only state where a governor cannot run for reelection.)

In any event, fans of politics are deprived of an interesting x-factor in the Old Dominion’s gubernatorial race. What remains is a contest between two deeply flawed candidates, Cuccinelli and McAuliffe, whose race will be vicious in no small part because they have limited positive appeal. It remains a toss-up at the moment, and given that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) seems like he will have an easy road to reelection in 2013’s other off-year gubernatorial contest, the McAuliffe-Cuccinelli race is likely to be the main event on a sparse 2013 political calendar. For those disgusted by the rancor of American politics, it’s unlikely that the year’s marquee contest will inspire much confidence that things are getting any better.