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Run Bill run / February 14, 2013
On the heels of one presidential election, political junkies already are yakking about the 2016 field. Which prompts the question: Can anyone just make it stop? No? Well, if speculation is inevitable, at least can we zero in on the big story happening in the here and now — the civil war welling up from within the Republican Party?

Some of us — a little avariciously — have been waiting for this: the moment when someone in the ranks has the guts to tell the party’s more extreme elements to knock it off, dial it back, come down to earth and contribute something to the debate that isn’t based on cynical calculation or distortions or, worse, talk-radio lies. There are plenty of Republicans who might aspire to set their party on such a course. But in the face of the mania that reigned during Obama’s first term, they’ve been laying low.

It’s time for Republican moderates to show their true colors. And who knows, a Virginia officeholder who few bothered to pay much attention to over the past four years could be just the man to lead the Grand Old Party out of the deep, dark wilderness. His name is Bill Bolling, and if he hasn’t yet decided to run for governor this year, he should.

You’ve probably heard of Bolling — he is the state’s lieutenant governor, after all. A fairly conventional conservative, but hardly a nut, Bolling has positioned himself over the past four years as Bob McDonnell’s heir apparent. Clearly he was counting on the governor’s support to help him win the top job after playing the dutiful no. 2.

Unfortunately for Bolling, no one told Ken Cuccinelli, Virginia’s in-your-face Republican attorney general, about this arrangement. Cuccinelli also opted to run for governor and won the party’s nomination more or less without a firing a shot. It’s no mystery why: he excites the party’s base, which milquetoast types like Bolling do not. (Cuccinelli’s conquest also entailed a switch from a primary to a convention, a move engineered by his far right supporters on the state committee).

Ken Cuccinelli is a political disaster waiting to happen — a man who will make Virginia the next lightning rod for the hyper-partisan storm that has swept the country and left nothing but turmoil and dysfunction in its wake. Whereas most politicians deep down yearn to be everyone’s pal, Cuccinelli is an unabashed culture warrior who makes the current batch of ideologues and doofs calling the shots in the General Assembly look like Mr. Rogers by comparison. It’s tempting to think he won the attorney general contest four years ago simply because no one was paying attention to the downticket races as McDonnell rolled to a 17-point victory, but this ignores Cuccinelli’s consistent, and to this observer quite inexplicable, record of electoral success. He could well become Virginia’s next chief executive, especially with Democrats fielding a candidate of their own, Terry McAuliffe, with several apparent weaknesses. If Cuccinelli wins, watch out.

Bolling would have been a far better pick for Republicans, both for the party’s future prospects and for Virginia as a whole. (Put me down as believing Ken Cuccinelli cannot win in the general election, although with McAuliffe also on the ballot the matter could come down to which candidate can motivate the greatest number of nose-holding supporters). Bolling similarly seems to believe he’d be the superior November candidate, as evidenced by his refusal to endorse Cuccinelli on the grounds he is too extreme. Since being denied the Republican nomination, Bolling has been talking about running as an independent. But will he follow through?

Third party and independent candidacies almost never pan out, but Bolling wouldn’t have to actually win this year to exert a profound influence on Republican Party politics in Virginia and beyond. In the wake of their drubbing in the presidential election — a race that many right-wingers never imagined they could lose — Republicans are due for a reckoning, even a cleansing, that will only happen if the party’s rational elements are willing to stand up to the crazy train. Bolling vs. Cucinelli in 2013 was supposed to provide an indication of which part of the Republican coalition — conservative or moderate — would be ascendant in coming years. So far the battle isn’t going especially well for sane wing of the Grand Old Party. Yet if Bolling runs, it would be a heartening sign that Republican moderates have some fight in them still.

If a Bolling candidacy were simply about personal ambition or political jockeying, one could be forgiven for not caring a thing about the implications. But all you have to do is to look at some of Bolling’s recent heresies to understand what a more moderate Republican Party would mean for the good of the country. Here in Southside, of course, the lieutenant governor is owed a note of thanks for his brave stance against uranium mining, which marked a break with rigid, pro-business conservatism. But Bolling has moved to the middle on the other issues, too. None is more significant than his support for expanding Medicaid, which puts Bolling at odds with the majority of his party and especially Cuccinelli, who wasted untold taxpayer dollars fighting Obamacare in court.

The Medicaid expansion is a big deal — if Republicans at the Capital, including Gov. McDonnell, allow it to happen. The Affordable Care Act, neé Obamacare, calls for extending Medicaid coverage to families earning up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level, although the program expansion must be approved on a state-by-state basis. Southside Virginia, with thousands of families in line to qualify for Medicaid, would be a huge winner. (So would Halifax Regional Hospital, which writes off millions of dollars in unpaid health care each year). From an economic and fiscal standpoint, Virginia’s acceptance of the Medicaid deal is a no-brainer — the federal government pays the full cost for new beneficiaries for the first three years, and 90 percent of costs after that. Credible economic analyses show that Virginia would come out ahead financially after factoring in the estimated 30,000 new jobs that would be created in the health care sector. The sole reason for opposing the law is ideology: Republicans didn’t like Obamacare when it passed, and now they’re trying to drag out implementation despite the manifest good the law would do for people at the lower rungs of the wage ladder. The GOP has been beaten at every turn on health care reform, but it’s a rare Republican who will tell the bitter-enders to knock it off.

Bolling has distinguished himself this legislative session as just such a person. In addition to his stance on Medicaid, Bolling also expressed early opposition to an eliminationist State Senate redistricting plan that Republicans in the Senate enacted by a 20-19 vote while a black Democratic senator was out of town in Washington to attend the presidential inauguration. The Senate redistricting plan would have carved up Halifax County into two districts — one strongly Republican-leaning, the other a minority-majority gerrymander — but it was subsequently ruled out of order by Republican speaker in the House of Delegates, leading to its demise. By getting out in front of the tomfoolery emanating from Richmond, Virginia’s Republican lieutenant governor is positioning himself as the champion of the sensible center.

Of course, a three-way campaign — featuring McAuliffe in center-left, Bowling in center-right, and Cuccinelli so far out in right field he might as well as be sitting on a bar stool at Murphy’s Bar & Grill across from Wrigley Field — likely will produce a Democratic victory in the fall. Such an outcome is not assured, especially if McAuliffe proves to be an ineffective candidate, or if Bolling surprises on the upside, but that’s how the calculus normally works.

Yet even if Bolling cuts into Cuccinelli’s base of support and ends up putting the Governor’s Mansion out of reach for Republicans, it would be the height of hypocrisy for party stalwarts to fume about the malign acts of wayward moderates, the Republicans-In-Name-Only Crowd. After all, Bolling hardly would be the first party insurgent to hand victory over to the Democrats. Tea Patriot faves — represented by the rarified likes of U.S. Senate candidates such as Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, and Christine O’Donnell — have been doing a great job tanking in the fall elections and making sure that Republicans fall short of their quest for power in Washington. If Bolling does wind up playing the spoiler against Cuccinelli, it would simply be a case of balancing out the score.

Either way, Virginia Republicans — and the rest of the state — would have much to gain out of the bargain.

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