A group of Virginia Republicans, stung by the loss of the governorship after voters this month rejected Attorney General and Tea Party leader Ken Cuccinelli, are readying what would be one of the toughest intra-party revolts yet against the anti-tax movement.
Former U.S. Representative Tom Davis, who from 1998 to 2002 led House Republicans’ campaign committee, is among those working to create an organization to advocate statewide candidates who he says will be less extreme on such issues as abortion rights and more electable.
They also want to pressure the Virginia Republican Party to return to using a primary to select nominees, rather than a party convention, which mostly attracts core activists. That process guaranteed Cuccinelli’s nomination and undercut the more centrist candidate, Republican Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling.
“I call them Republicans who can win,” Davis said of the pro-business candidates he says voters will embrace more than those backed by the small-government movement. “If these other guys were winning, I don’t think there would be this type of discussion.”
Davis and two other participants in the effort said that while it’s still in its infancy, their goal is to have a group in early 2014 that can raise unlimited funds to influence elections. The organization is likely to reap contributions from a business community that has seen portions of its agenda blocked by Tea Party lawmakers, said Bobbie Kilberg, president of the Northern Virginia Technology Council.
“I predict you’ll see many people in the technology industry get involved,” said Kilberg, a fundraiser for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney who supports the effort being led by Davis, Richmond attorney Wyatt Durrette and others.
Virginia’s brewing intra-party fight isn’t the only one.
In Utah, what began as an effort to attract young voters by converting to a primary system took on new meaning after Tea Party-backed Senator Mike Lee in 2010 defeated three-term Senator Robert Bennett at a state party convention. The push to pass a ballot initiative shifting to a primary is being led by such party stalwarts as former Governor Jon Huntsman Jr., a 2012 presidential contender.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which spent $36 million to influence last year’s congressional races, is wading into Republican primary fights to back candidates focused on economic issues.
And at a Nov. 4 election briefing for reporters, Rob Collins, the executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said the party may spend money to aid preferred candidates in 2014, after sitting it out in 2012.
“Would we spend money in a primary? Yes, we would if that’s the right move at the time,” said Collins. “There are no rules. I treat every state differently. The path to getting a general election candidate who can win is the only thing we care about.”
Meanwhile, incumbent Republican senators facing Tea Party challengers in their primaries, including Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, are making the case that voters shouldn’t elect legislators who won’t compromise.
“In 2010, Republicans ignored the Tea Party,” said Jennifer Duffy, Senate editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington. “In 2012, they tried to befriend them, and that didn’t work. And in 2014, they’re just fighting back.”
Sal Russo, political director of the Tea Party Express, based in Sacramento, California, contests the notion that Tea Party candidates are less electable than other Republicans.
In the 2012 elections, he said, three Tea Party-backed Senate candidates won general elections: Ted Cruz of Texas, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Deb Fischer of Nebraska. More traditional Republican candidates lost, including former Governor Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin and former U.S. Representative Pete Hoekstra in Michigan.
“The premise is incorrect,” he said. “There are good candidates and bad candidates on both the establishment Republican side and on the Tea Party side.”
He also said his group favors open primaries, although states that have a tradition of using nominating conventions should be able to retain them.
The Virginia party officials “made a mistake” by changing their rules to ensure Cuccinelli’s nomination, he said.
“When you make these system changes because you want to change the political result, you’re on thin ice,” he said. Cuccinelli supporters excluded others in the party and “it’s very difficult to get everyone back in a happy family” later.
The state party didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Cuccinelli lost on Nov. 5 to Terry McAuliffe, with the Democrat reaping 48 percent of the vote to the Republican’s 46 percent. Cuccinelli called the contest a referendum on the Affordable Care Act, while Democrats highlighted his opposition to abortion rights and comments in which they said he likened immigration policy to pest control.
By choosing Cuccinelli, Republicans sacrificed a chance to replicate the winning formula used by outgoing Republican Governor Bob McDonnell in 2009. He consolidated support within the party, which comprises about a third of Virginia’s electorate, while reaching out to Independents who comprise about the same proportion of voters.
Cuccinelli won 92 percent of Republicans, according to a New York Times exit poll, 4 percentage points lower than McDonnell four years before. Among Independents, he drew 47 percent support, underperforming McDonnell among them by 19 percentage points.
He also did worse among the 44 percent of Virginia voters who described their ideology as “moderate,” winning 34 percent of them -- 13 percentage points less than McDonnell. The attorney general even drew less votes from the 36 percent of voters who called themselves “conservative,” winning 83 percent, 8 percentage points fewer than McDonnell.
Cuccinelli suffered financially partly because of some Virginia business leaders concluded that his opposition to gay rights, climate-change science, and other issues would be bad for their bottom lines.
He raised $21 million, compared with $34 million for his Democratic opponent, according to records compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project.
Some of that disparity stemmed from the unwillingness of Republican donors who had backed McDonnell to contribute to Cuccinelli. Of the 25 individuals who were top givers to McDonnell’s 2009 gubernatorial bid, about half gave money to Cuccinelli, and three switched allegiances to dole out large sums to McAuliffe.
They included R. Ted Weschler, a Berkshire Hathaway Inc. investment manager, who gave McAuliffe $25,000; Dwight Schar, the executive chairman of homebuilder NVR Inc. and a former national finance chairman of the Republican National Committee, who donated $67,000 to the Democrat; and former Landmark Communications Chief Executive Officer John O. “Dubby” Wynne, who gave $50,000 to McAuliffe.
Beyond McAuliffe’s win, the election of Ralph Northam as Virginia’s lieutenant governor and Mark Herring’s tentative victory in the attorney general race marked the first time since 1989 that Democrats captured all three of the top state offices. Herring’s 163-vote victory is the subject of a recount.
Durrette, the attorney helping Davis, said Cuccinelli’s defeat shows that Republicans need to appeal to a broader constituency to win statewide.
“My major concern about the party is the lack of tolerance of differing views within a broad philosophical framework, and the unwillingness on the part of some to find compromises in order to govern effectively,” said Durrette, who was the Republican party’s 1985 nominee for governor and its 1981 nominee for attorney general.
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