Since scratching his own Virginia gubernatorial bid last year, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling has come to think of himself as something of a quiet referee in the contentious race between Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe, a former DNC chairman. Bolling, who has no preferred player in the match-up, largely stays on the sidelines. But some news in state politics this week put a bit of the spotlight on how Bolling would react to those developments: Gov. Bob McDonnell met with prosecutors looking into his relationship with a donor, Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams; and Bolling’s longtime adviser, GOP strategist Boyd Marcus, announced he would back McAuliffe in the race.
The No. 2 officer in the commonwealth spoke with RealClearPolitics about Boyd’s move; the impact of the McDonnell controversy on the race; the Virginia GOP as a microcosm of the national party’s woes; whether he might wage a write-in bid for governor; and why he is “not a big fan” of Cuccinelli.
Why did Marcus switch over to the other side?
There are a lot of Republicans in Virginia who are not happy with the Republican nominee for governor, and there are a lot of Republicans in Virginia who are concerned about the direction of the Republican Party. And a lot of those folks in recent weeks have chosen to endorse Mr. McAuliffe’s candidacy. He did what he thought was right, and I respect that. There are other Republicans who feel the same way he does and have done the same thing in recent weeks. Obviously, McAuliffe is trying to use that to his advantage and it’s a smart strategy on his part.
The Virginia gubernatorial race typically serves as a check or a bellwether. The president’s party tends to loose. McDonnell’s win in 2009 delivered one of the first blows to President Obama, and Republicans took over the House of Representatives the following year. Will it be a bellwether this year? What will it say about the GOP?
I don’t think you’re going to be able to read a lot into the outcome of this election, no matter which way it goes. The Republican Party in Virginia is going through the same challenges that many Republican parties across the country are going through, as you try to obtain the proper balance between traditional Republicans, like myself, and the Tea Party Republicans, and Ron Paul Republicans -- are all trying to figure out how to live under the same roof. And that’s a challenge for the party in Virginia and I think it’s a challenge for the GOP nationally.
The Republican Party of Virginia has basically been taken over by the Tea Party folks, and Ron Paul folks, and because of that the party has gone in a direction that concerns a lot of us. It has resulted in the nomination of not just the most conservative ticket but also the most ideologically driven ticket in the history of the state. I think that creates a couple challenges: uncomfortableness for traditional Republicans, and an uncertainty as to how that ticket will be received by voters in the fall.
On the other hand, the other side has not been able to generate a lot of excitement around their candidate either. If you look at the polls, the only folks that seem to be happy with the choices are the partisans in each party.
Virginia is a purple state. You’ve got a block of voters who will always vote for the Republican candidate; you’ve got a block of voters who will always vote for the Democratic candidate. Elections in our state are determined by the 20-25 percent of independent voters, and those voters right now are just scratching their heads trying to figure out what to do.
What do you think those independents will do?
I don’t think either candidate has really reached into that group yet because neither candidate has offered a positive vision for the future of the state. The campaign up until now has become a rapid race to the bottom, with each candidate trying to define the opponent in terms of the lowest common denominator, rather than trying to define themselves.
It’s not that these guys haven’t talked about issues. They have. And there are big differences between them on issues. But the problem is their discussion has been totally drowned out by the million of TV ads that they’ve already run.
Independent voters are not moved by negative campaigns. They’re moved by candidates who are able to present come sort of a positive vision. And at this point, neither one of them has been able to do that. If they don’t, then I think there’s a likelihood that these independent voters could stay home on Election Day and we could be looking at one of the lowest voter turnouts in the history of the state.
You haven’t endorsed Cuccinelli. Do you plan to endorse anyone before Election Day?
I don’t plan to. That could change. But I don’t have any plans to do so. I’m a Republican. I’ve been clear to say that I have concerns about Cuccinelli’s ability to effectively and responsibly govern our state, and because of those concerns, I have not been comfortable endorsing his candidacy. But I’m a Republican, and because of that I’m not comfortable endorsing the other guy’s candidacy either.
Whether the voters like it or not, one of these two guys is going to be the next governor of Virginia.
Or could the next governor be you?
That’s not a viable option. I wanted to be the Republican candidate for governor. That didn’t work out. The governing body of the Republican Party of Virginia was essentially taken over by the Tea Party folks and the Ron Paul folks and they changed the nomination from a primary to a convention and that just made it very difficult for me to win. I considered an independent candidacy but I feel for a lot of reasons that wasn’t the right way to go. And I feel that a write-in campaign is just a very long shot and at this point is not something I have any intention of pursuing.
What I think we have to do is just choose very carefully to make sure we have a governor who can lead our state effectively, responsibly and in a mainstream way.
What’s your relationship like with Cuccinelli?
I’m not a big fan of Mr. Cuccinelli’s. There are issues on which I agree with him, and others on which I disagree. My main concern is the types of issues he has tended to focus on through his career, and his leadership style and demeanor, and his ability to effectively and responsibly lead the state. It’s not personal -- I’m just not convinced he has the skill set that’s necessary to be an effective governor. He is a smart guy, a very principled guy, and a very hardworking guy. I respect all of that. I just worry about the kind of governor he would be.
I think the challenge McAuliffe faces is that a lot of voters still don’t know him. He has not been actively involved in Virginia life in the past. The challenge McAuliffe faces is he has to define himself to the voters. The challenge Cuccinelli faces is he has to redefine himself to the voters. Many voters in Virginia feel he is just too extreme, so he is trying to redefine himself as a more mainstream political candidate.
What specifically gives you pause about Cuccinelli?
I worry about the kinds of issues he would focus on as governor. I worry about his ability to build the consensus that’s necessary to solve problems and get things done.
He has tended to be a rigid ideologue who thrives on conflict and confrontation and tends to be drawn to the more controversial and divisive issues of the day. They fire up the Tea Party base, I’m just not sure they’re the right skill set for someone who wants to be governor.
Is it possible for him to redefine himself?
I think it will be very hard for Cuccinelli to redefine himself with voters who know anything about him. But, there are a lot of voters who know nothing about Cuccinelli or McAuliffe, so with those voters he could potentially redefine himself.
It’s going to be a low turnout race, as off-year elections are. I think this could be a 30-35 percent turnout.
Who benefits from a lower turnout?
I think Cuccinelli would love that. I think he likes the current direction of this campaign, because it’s turning off a lot of voters and that means they may stay home. The lower the voter turnout, the better the chance Cuccinelli has of winning. McAuliffe, I think his strategy is, he has to drive people to the polls. He’s got to boost voter turnout. I don’t think he can do that by attacking Cuccinelli. I think he also has to offer some sort of positive vision that encourages people to vote for him, not just against the other guy.
For “mainstream” Republicans like yourself, would it be better or worse if McAuliffe were governor?
I’m not going to respond to that one.
What kind of an impact is the McDonnell controversy having on this race?
It just makes Republicans look bad, and it reminds voters that Mr. Cuccinelli has his own Star Scientific problems. As a result of his relationship [with Williams], he encountered a conflict of interest in at least two cases in which he has had to assign to outside firms, which will cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. The situation involving Gov. McDonnell and Star Scientific is certainty not helpful, in fact it is harmful.
What’s going to happen with McDonnell? Any chance of him resigning?
I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t know what kind of conversation the governor and his attorneys have had.
My hope is that the federal prosecutors will determine that nothing the governor did rose to the level of illegal activity. That’s my hope. But I just don’t know. The facts I know are the facts I read in the media reports, so I don’t know what discussions have taken place between the federal prosecutors and the governor, so we will just have to see how this plays out. It would benefit us all to get this behind us one way or another.