Virginia lieutenant governor Bill Bolling’s flirtation with an independent gubernatorial bid has Richmond’s Republican insiders abuzz, but in a series of conversations, many of them hint that a Bolling run is unlikely.
Instead, Bolling’s public musing is seen as a not-so-subtle shot at Ken Cuccinelli, the state’s conservative attorney general.
Some Republicans say Bolling expected to be the presumptive nominee, but when the party decided to choose its candidate at a convention instead of through a statewide primary, he lost his chance at winning the spot. That decision left Bolling feeling slighted and bitter, sources say — and it gave him a personal motivation to push back against the state GOP.
Earlier this week, Bolling stoked the chatter when he fired off an e-mail to his donors and political allies, asking for their advice regarding a gubernatorial run. “I know it won’t be easy to win the governorship as an independent candidate, but with your help I believe it can be done,” he wrote.
But not all of Bolling’s allies are buying it. They say that money, more than anything else, will be the factor that keeps him out of the race. Unaffiliated Virginia Republicans agree, arguing that Bolling would need to raise millions fast. Running a credible independent campaign would take at least $15 million, and the lieutenant governor has less than $800,000 on hand. He also has little to no campaign apparatus.
Linwood Cobb, a longtime Bolling confidant and Republican official, doubts his friend will run, given the loyalty of most state Republicans to the party. “Some of these folks that are encouraging him to run are going to have to pony up a lot of money,” he says. “He knows folks like me that have supported Bill for years are going to support the nominee of the party.”
A Quinnipiac University poll released last month shows McAuliffe and Cuccinelli tied at 38 percent support. In a three-way race Bolling draws 13 percent, well behind McAuliffe at 34 percent and Cuccinelli at 31 percent.
Still, a Bolling candidacy is not impossible. He spent the last three years heading up governor Bob McDonnell’s job-creation efforts, and he has won two statewide races for lieutenant governor. And he has significant support from business leaders in Northern Virginia, many of whom have expressed their unhappiness with Cuccinelli.
The state’s lack of limits on campaign contributions could also work in his favor. If he has made a few wealthy friends during his stint in Richmond, his campaign could get serious quickly. “Damn hard, but he could do it” is how one Republican insider describes Bolling’s situation.
Assuming the unlikely happens and he enters the race, could Bolling actually pull off a win, or would he just be a spoiler?
A Republican strategist familiar with the state, who spoke freely on condition of anonymity, says Bolling could theoretically hurt McAuliffe more than Cuccinelli. He argues that Cuccinelli should have little trouble drawing 95 percent of self-identified Republican voters, which leaves Bolling little to work with. Plus, he’s positioned himself as a moderate during this legislative session, supporting the governor’s tax hikes to pay for a transportation bill. So a few political insiders argue that he could draw a comparable number of votes from McAuliffe and Cuccinelli.
Part of McAuliffe’s problem is that he doesn’t fit the typical model of successful Democrats in the state. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine ran as Virginia Democrats — moderates who understood businesses’ concerns and valued bipartisanship. As the former chairman of the DNC and a new resident of the state, McAuliffe won’t be able to capitalize on that image. If Cuccinelli’s camp paints him as a hard-left liberal outsider, Bolling could benefit. Of course, conventional wisdom holds that a Bolling third-party run might seriously hamstring the Cuccinelli candidacy and give the race to McAuliffe.
But the odds that he will even enter the contest remain slim, especially since he’s been known as a loyal member of the party for 25 years. Bolling may have sent an e-mail, and he may be irked about Cuccinelli, but a path to victory still seems elusive.