"The truth is, we're going to have to have some higher taxes in order to generate the money we need to solve the problem."
When was the last time you heard a Republican talk like that? That was Virginia's Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling talking to the Washington Post last month about the state's persistent transportation crisis. Bolling has been elected to his position twice as a Republican (in 2005, when Virginia elected a Democratic governor, and in 2009 when the state elected the current Republican governor).
Bolling says he will decide by March 14 whether he will jump into the race for governor this year as an Independent, or what he calls an "Independent Republican." It could be the first battle in a Republican civil war resulting from Mitt Romney's unexpectedly decisive defeat last year. "It's just a challenging time for the Republican Party when a conservative, mainstream guy like me doesn't really feel comfortable with his party," Bolling told the Post. "The party has moved too far, and it's become too extreme and too ideological."
Case in point: Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who has become the champion of tea party and religious right Republicans. Last year, Cuccinelli supporters took over the Virginia Republican Party's central committee and switched the contest for the 2013 gubernatorial nomination from a primary to a convention. Bolling, who was planning a primary race, didn't stand a chance to carry a convention controlled by Cuccinelli activists. Bolling got out of the Republican race a few weeks after the presidential election in November, after waiting to see whether he would accede to the governor's chair if Romney won and appointed the current Republican governor to an Administration position.
Cuccinelli's a firebrand. He takes aggressively conservative positions on social issues like abortion, gay rights, contraception, immigration and climate change. He sued the federal government over the new health care law. He opposes a compromise deal on transportation funding supported by the Republican governor. He has called the Obama administration "the biggest set of lawbreakers in America."
Republicans have now failed to carry the national popular vote in five out of the last six presidential elections. Virginia voted Republican in every presidential election from 1968 to 2004. It has now gone twice for Barack Obama. Republicans are going through the same correction process that Democrats went through after losing three straight presidential elections in the 1980s. Remember the "neo-liberal" movement?
Virginia is ground zero in the Republican correction process. "I'm concerned that our party is headed in the wrong direction," Bolling wrote in an e-mail asking Virginia Republicans whether they would support an independent campaign, which he called "an opportunity to make history." Last month, Politico reported that two Virginia technology executives confronted Cuccinelli at a private party meeting and told him he was too polarizing to get elected. One of them -- a leading Romney fundraiser -- later told the New York Times, "Everyone is going to be focused on Virginia as an indication of the future direction of the party nationally. It is exceptionally important that the direction be a mainstream direction."
A recent Quinnipiac poll of Virginia voters shows a tight two-way race between Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe. Neither candidate is particularly well known in the state: 44 percent of Virginians have no opinion of Cuccinelli and 60 percent have no opinion of McAuliffe. With Bolling as an Independent, McAuliffe opens up a small lead over Cuccinelli (34 to 31 percent, with 13 percent for Bolling). Bolling believes that if he gets in, his support will immediately jump to 20-25 percent. He could win with just over one third of the vote, assuming he can raise $10-15 million to run a credible campaign.
A Cuccinelli defeat this year would break a pattern. In every election for governor since 1977, Virginia has voted for the party that lost the White House the year before. That's mainly because the electorate shrinks. The number of Virginia voters went from 3.7 million in 2008 to 2.0 million in 2009.
Virginia is also ground zero in the sequester debate. Federal spending accounts for nearly 20 percent of the Virginia economy. The Defense Department is planning to furlough nearly 90,000 civilian workers in Virginia this year, the most in any state. Economists are predicting that the sequester will drive Virginia into recession.
It is not clear which party voters will blame. Right now, voters nationwide blame Republicans more than Democrats for the sequester crisis. But when sequestration went into effect, President Obama's job approval rating dropped from 51 to 47 percent in the Gallup poll.
If Bolling runs and wins, it would be a powerful statement to both parties, but particularly to Republicans. A Virginia businessman told Politico that an independent like Bolling "could raise an enormous amount of money if he skillfully frames his candidacy around restoring moderation to politics." The businessman predicted, "Virginia's upcoming gubernatorial election could be cited as the battleground where this stand could be taken and won."