By Carten Cordell | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
ALEXANDRIA — While all eyes are on the 2012 election cycle, the 2013 Republican gubernatorial contest between Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli looks to be so contentious that it could overshadow the general election.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., fueled the fire last week with an endorsement of Cuccinelli at the Liberty Political Action Conference in Chantilly. Paul, representing one of the tea party’s most significant political successes to date, praised Cuccinelli as “a key leader nationally in the fight against unconstitutional overreaches of the federal government. “
Cuccinelli’s political stock has been rising, thanks in part to a number of high-profile cases, including an early lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act. But his clash with Bolling, a pragmatic politician and state chair of Mitt Romney’s campaign, illustrates the divide between grassroots tea partiers and the traditional GOP power structure.
Karen M. Hult, director of graduate studies at Virginia Tech’s Department of Political Science in Blacksburg, said that the Cuccinelli-Bolling race isn’t the catalyst of a GOP split, but rather a symptom of it.
“Clearly, there is a split in the state Republican Party, in the organization, that has been taking place for quite some time,” she said. “My sense is some of it is clearly tea party, but it depends on what branch of the tea party we are referring to.
“The smaller-government, anti-tax element is there, but I think Cuccinelli resonates with the parts in the Republican Party, both nationally and in the state of Virginia, that focus on social conservatism, and that isn’t necessarily tea party-related.”
Bolling, meanwhile, has served as a steadfast ally of both Romney and Gov. Bob McDonnell, who has endorsed the lieutenant governor to succeed him. By stepping aside from a bid for governor in 2009 so McDonnell could run, Bolling earned political points with a second term as lieutenant governor and often served as tiebreaker in the deadlocked state Senate.
Traditionally, that service and experience would give a candidate a significant edge over a fast-rising challenger within the GOP, but the fervor of the tea party base, however diverse, has provided primary upsets on almost all political levels.
Cuccinelli’s rise on the national scene provides a stark contrast to Bolling’s team-player persona, setting up the debate over which is stronger — experience or garnering voter engagement.
“The argument that Bolling will make is that he will have a stronger chance in the general election,” Hult said. “Cuccinelli, in contrast, is going to say, ‘Look, I am the real Republican here, and indeed, I can win and have won statewide races.’”
The most recent poll, by Qunnipiac University in June, showed Cuccinelli with a commanding 51-15 lead over Bolling, but a third of voters surveyed were undecided.
Another possible detriment to the Bolling camp is that GOP nominee for governor will be decided by a closed convention of Republican delegates, opening the door for a grassroots block of voters to back Cuccinelli.
Keith Freeman, chairman of the Hampton Roads Tea Party, said the Cuccinelli-Bolling contest provides Republicans with an embarrassment of riches in the form of two quality choices for governor.
“Both of them are strong candidates, both of them are well-respected throughout the state,” he said. “It’s a hard choice. What dessert do you want to have, the apple pie or the peach cobbler?”
John Jaggers, director of operations for the Northern Virginia Tea Party, said he has no qualms about his choice.
“I think everybody is going to have to get comfortable with the idea that Ken Cuccinelli is going to be the next governor of Virginia,” he said.
As far as the candidates’ camps go, no one is talking. Calls to Bolling campaign officials were not returned by deadline and Cuccinelli political director Noah Wall said they were focused on the 2012 cycle at this moment.
But for those who will long for the high-stakes drama of a tight election race after November, Virginia will not disappoint.
Carten Cordell can be reached at email@example.com