No Moderate Makeover in Virginia

The only year-end phenomenon more predictable than “fiscal cliff” doom-crying is the plethora of claims that sensible folk (if not this very day then tomorrow!) are regaining control of the Republican Party as movement conservatives sulk on the sidelines or tear into each other.

This eternally recurring vision of “adults” curbing the unruly Tea Party naifs–one of the major Beltway subtexts of the recently deceased Romney presidential campaign, of course–is colliding with reality in the key 2013 election battleground of Virginia, as Politico‘s Jonathan Martin notices today:

As the Old Dominion becomes a firmly centrist state, more closely resembling the rest of the country demographically and politically, Virginia Republicans are shifting rightward.

After President Barack Obama carried the state twice, it’s plausible that the party will nominate a slate of three movement conservative white males for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general next year.

But wait: isn’t Virginia the place where Republicans reacting to that state’s historic shift into the Democratic column in 2008 launched a national party comeback in 2009 under the leadership of a gubernatorial candidate–Bob McDonnell–who quickly morphed from a howling-at-the-moon social reactionary to a sensible “adult” only interested in fiscal issues?

Yeah, but the howling-at-the-moon faction in Virginia has already destroyed the once-certain gubernatorial candidacy of McDonnell’s annointed successor, two-term Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, by successfully backing a party nominating convention for state candidates instead of a primary. So the candidate who makes Virginia Democrats salivate, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, will top the 2013 ticket, and he’s far beyond a McDonnell-style last-minute moderate makeover. And his backers don’t want one anyway, says Martin:

Virginia GOP Chairman Pat Mullins insisted at the state party’s “Advance” [event] that Republicans still have a winning formula.

“Virginia’s a conservative state, and when we stick up for our beliefs, and our values, and our principles … we win elections,” said Mullins, according to The Washington Post. “When we choose to run like Democrats, we lose elections because we haven’t given anybody a choice.”

Mullins’s assertion, even with latitude given for the rah-rah circumstances of a party rally, confounds many longtime observers of Old Dominion politics.

“Their election analysis is a predictable one-note samba,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. “It’s never their issues or their inclusiveness. Therefore, the solution is always to look for a better messenger for hard-core conservatism, ignoring the hard reality that some of their message, especially on social issues, is alienating large segments of the population in an increasingly diverse and moderate state.”

“There’s this tremendous disconnect,” commented one Richmond Republican hand of how the GOP has become more conservative even as Democrats have won two presidential races, two of the last three gubernatorial contests and both Senate seats. “It seems that both in Virginia and nationally the movement conservatives are getting more and more rabid and less enthralled with establishment conservatives like George Allen and more into the crusaders.”

So whenever you read the next celebration of Tea Party disarray or alleged Republican “reflection,” keep an eye on Virginia, where post-election talk is over and politics have already entered the “midterm” cycle, in which conservatives rejoice at the prospect of a significantly smaller electorate. That’s a better harbinger of the Elephant’s future state of mind.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.