Ken Cuccinelli's Problems Are a Symptom of the GOP's Woes

Republicans should admit that the Virginia conservative's problems reflect the intraparty struggle that's haunted the GOP during Obama's presidency.

RICHMOND, VA - SEPTEMBER 05: Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican nominee for governor, answers questions from members of the press after addressing former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder's Public Policy class at Virginia Commonwealth University September 5, 2013 in Richmond, Virginia. Cuccinelli delivered remarks during the beginning of the class and then took questions from students and members of the press.  (National Journal)

No, Ken Cuccinelli's expected defeat next week won't have any more bearing on the 2014 midterms than Chris Christie's anticipated landslide victory in solidly-Democratic New Jersey. But the divide that split the GOP asunder in Virginia is a powerful symptom of the problems that are hurting the party across the country.

Republicans are facing challenges winning over swing, suburban voters who were once a bulwark of the party's coalition. Cuccinelli has spent little time campaigning in vote-rich Northern Virginia, with his socially conservative message failing to resonate with more-moderate voters.

Throughout his campaign, Cuccinelli has been catering to the party's base, declining to criticize GOP tactics over the government shutdown and appearing with tea-party leaders Ted Cruz and Rand Paul in the campaign's final month. His appearance with Paul on Monday was at Liberty University, where the senator advocated a pro-life message to an evangelical audience.

"Republicans need to ask what's wrong with our business model here," said a frustrated Tom Davis, former Republican House member from Northern Virginia and a Cuccinelli supporter. "This should have been a slam dunk. Virginia almost always votes against the president's party.... All we needed was a mammal up there."

If Cuccinelli fails to engineer an unlikely comeback, it should signal that running an outspoken social conservative in a battleground state is a losing formula. But there are few signs that the message is getting through. If anything, the party's civil war — played out in Virginia between lieutenant governor Bill Bolling and Cuccinelli — is just beginning to heat up.

Consider: Seven of the 12 Republican senators up for reelection in 2014 are facing credible primary threats from the right. Few of those are expected to win, but most will pose more than a nuisance.

Most prominently, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is campaigning aggressively against tea-party-aligned businessman Matt Bevin; McConnell's campaign is doing everything in its power to diminish the challenger's credibility, and the standing of outside tea-party groups. In Mississippi, conservative groups like the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund are rallying behind state Sen. Chris McDaniel, deemed the Jim DeMint of the state's Legislature, against veteran Sen. Thad Cochran. In Tennessee, Sen. Lamar Alexander spent more than $1 million in the last fundraising quarter in anticipation of a primary challenger. (He avoided the worst outcome, facing only a long-shot candidacy from a state representative.)

Meanwhile, conservative candidates are continuing to challenge establishment favorites in many other Senate races. In a crowded Senate primary in Georgia, most of the candidates are all trying to out-conservative each other. And in Louisiana, where a November primary has candidates from all parties competing on the same ballot, the Senate Conservatives Fund endorsed the retired Air Force colonel challenging GOP Rep. Bill Cassidy. That means, while the two Republicans spend their time attacking each other, Sen. Mary Landrieu could avoid a general election by winning 50 percent of primary voters.

Plus, with the grassroots' energy focused on ousting their own, outside groups are paying less attention to the crop of vulnerable Democratic senators. The GOP campaign committees' fundraising is down, and American Crossroads is facing challenges replicating its fundraising success of elections past. Just like Cuccinelli has faced a huge financial disadvantage against deep-pocketed Democrat Terry McAuliffe, Republican candidates could find themselves outspent in pivotal races, thanks to the intraparty divide.

The Virginia governor's race also has highlighted how election rules designed to benefit conservatives have played an unheralded role in pushing the party rightward, costing them at the general-election ballot box. Most notable: The party's practice, in several states, of holding conventions instead of primaries to choose nominees, leaving the typically unrepresentative cross-section of single-issue activists to pick the Republican candidate.

In Virginia, Cuccinelli's allies bypassed the primary process to blunt intraparty opposition, a move that's contributed to his problems in unifying the party. Ironically, the outspoken conservative is belatedly trying to rally the base, something that would have been much easier had he engaged the broader GOP electorate in a primary campaign.

Republicans are facing a similar problem in Iowa in the campaign for the state's very-winnable open-seat Senate race. A crowded cast of candidates is vying for the GOP nomination, but party rules guarantee a convention if no one hits 35 percent of the vote. That possibility is growing, with GOP leaders doing nothing to avert the outcome. A convention would start the process over, raising the likelihood of a weak candidate emerging.

The bigger long-term fear, according to Republican strategists, is if the party divisions worsen, the tea-party forces could emerge as a third party. Already McConnell's campaign has adopted a scorched-earth strategy, not just against his primary opponent, but against the very tea-party-oriented groups working to elect more conservative challengers to incumbents. The McConnell camp's goal is to exploit the groups' ideological inconsistencies, but those tactics are already inflaming intraparty tensions.

"The right could spring out very quickly and become their own entity — and then we're gone," said Davis. "These folks feel very empowered."

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