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McDonnell at Work: Eyeing 2016, Did He Convince Bolling to Drop Gov Bid?

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Governor McDonnell and Attorney General Cuccinelli hold each other in “maximum low regard,” as the saying goes in politics. But do the political math: Both men have a lot to gain, and nothing to lose, by joining  in 2013 even if it is a loveless marriage of convenience.  

by Paul Goldman

Those readers of this space, Blue Virginia, or viewing my commentary on local Richmond Television, know my take on the 2012 presidential election from the GOP side: McDonnell and Bolling were “all in” on Romney. If the GOP presidential standard-bearer lost, then it always seemed to me that Governor McDonnell would have his legacy riding on whether the Virginia GOP won the Governorship in 2013. McDonnell’s folks have been critical of me for this analysis and understandably so.

But while they are entitled to their own opinion, they aren’t entitled to their own facts. McDonnell bet his chips on a cabinet spot, which in turn would have made Bolling the MAN in Richmond. It didn’t turn out that way. McDonnell thus spent 33% of his first three years chasing the proverbial White Whale. To mix animal metaphors, he is now the lamest of lame ducks.

But this is also true: Governor McDonnell is now a player in 2016 at the presidential level. His year spent traveling the country and being on the VP final list helps big time in the arena. Moreover, Republicans finally realize the party can no longer take Virginia’s 13 electoral votes for granted. In addition, Governor McDonnell, on the national level, is an interesting political profile for a Republican. While Virginia Democrats would put him in the very conservative category, he is actually center right among Republicans on the national level, maybe even middle of the road depending on his stance on immigration (which is basically unknown at this time).

Point being: McDonnell has a legitimate chance to be the 2016 Republican presidential or vice-presidential nominee. He has earned a reputation for competence, not flash. Is he a long shot? Yes. But he could be a compromise choice for party activists and donors who don’t want to go the Southern religious conservatism of the Santorum wing, but think a Chris Christie is too Northern, Bobby Jindal too wonky, and Marco Rubio too rookie. There are other choices for sure, many in the crucial Midwest. But assume they don’t work out. McDonnell, the Notre Dame boy, ain’t chopped liver as they say in New Jersey.  

The Bigger Point Perhaps: McDonnell has to be thinking 2016. He isn’t going to challenge Warner in 2014. So if he doesn’t make some kind of play in 2016, what then, a re-run for Governor in 2017 or hang it up? A run for President in 2016 seems inevitable to me. What’s to lose?  

 

The First Mandatory Step Therefore: McDonnell has to keep the GOP in the Virginia Governor’s Mansion in 2013. This is the first presidential primary for McDonnell. It is all or nothing. He loses here, he is out there. Forget a legacy here, much less one in Iowa.  

If Virginia goes “all blue” on the political top line, then McDonnell fades on the national stage, especially if Christie is re-elected in New Jersey as would happen huge today according to the latest polls. McDonnell will then be seen not so much the winner, but as riding the 2009-2010 anti-Obama tide. Moreover, in 2016, the GOP is going to need someone who can bind up the party’s wounds and put a truly united front up against the Democrats. If McDonnell is seen as unable to do that in Virginia, why could he do it nationally?

So, again, the First Mandatory Test for McDonnell: Unite his own VA party and make sure when Spielberg does a Lincoln sequel, he has to deal with a GOP governor.

THE TRUTH ABOUT VIRGINIA POLITICS: Historically speaking, McDonnell’s “legacy” as Virginia Governor will be set in 2013. This was true for former Governor Robb, former Governor Allen and former Governor Warner, all of whom went to on to attempt to win their party’s presidential nominations in one way or another. If you check the polls, their images as successful governors were created largely in the gubernatorial campaigns to pick their successors.

Why? Their respective party candidates to succeed them all spent millions on television ads pumping their image. Why? Because, in turn, this helped those candidates get elected. That is to say: the better people felt about Robb, Allen and Warner, the better it was for candidates Baliles, Gilmore and Kaine. Common sense.

So Baliles, Gilmore and Kaine had reason to pump up their predecessors achievements. It was a mutually beneficial relationship for all concerned.

ENTER NOW Governor McDonnell, who can benefit from the same dynamic. Imagine how he will look to voters if the GOP gubernatorial candidate spends $5-$10 million praising McDonnell’s record. True, Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe could spend millions countering with anti-McDonnell ads. But this could prove to be a disaster. How does picking a fight with McD help McA?

THE POLITICAL NUGGET FOR THE DAY: A McDonnell/Cuccinelli alliance, even one paper thin, has real appeal to both men.

YOU GOT IT: McDonnell’s approval rating could be in the 70’s by next fall, just in time to make a crucial TV endorsement of the Virginia gubernatorial nominee.

Historically, no candidate for Governor has ever lost if he has the endorsement of the popular incumbent. Baliles and Gilmore won huge. Kaine’s victory, while much closer, was actually quite impressive given his underdog status for most of the contest.

SO NOW LET’S ANALYZE WHY BOLLING MAY BE DROPPING OUT. In terms of clout, McDonnell has NONE in helping Bolling win the 2013 GOP gubernatorial nod.  Attorney General Cuccinelli is a sure winner unless he blows it; there is nothing Bolling can do to stop the AG.

Does it help Governor McDonnell, either in the state or nationally, to back yet another loser? Of course not.

Moreover, helping Cuccinelli win the governorship can actually be a big plus for McDonnell on the national stage. The AG is very popular in that part of the national GOP constituency most leery of McDonnell. At the same time, McDonnell is very popular in that part of the Virginia GOP constituency most leery of Cuccinelli.

Cuccinelli is seen as the anti-McDonnell to many in the GOP: whereas McDonnell is cautious, modulating, Cuccinelli is seen as aggressive, intense. They are flip sides of the GOP coin. Oil and Water to the naked eye: but politicians to the core.

As the saying goes, this isn’t Cuccinelli’s first rodeo. He knows his biggest liability: the image Democrats will paint the AG as being too extreme to be Governor. The Democrats have some real live powder for that cannonade. Who provides Cuccinelli the political equivalent of Israel’s “Iron Dome” anti-missile defense? A popular Governor Bob McDonnell.

Historically, incumbent Virginia Governor’s, especially those who want to stay popular, don’t attack the other party’s candidate for the job. Rather, they prefer to go “all in” praising the character of their party’s candidate for governor.

Moreover, the last thing McAuliffe will want is a popular GOP governor whacking him for 2,000 gross rating points and 10,000 pop-up ads across the Internet.

THE 2013 BOTTOM LINE: The best thing for Bob McDonnell is to settle the GOP gubernatorial fight early, to forge an alliance – admittedly one of convenience – with Ken Cuccinelli. Accordingly, the shrewd play for Governor McDonnell is to nudge Bolling out of the race for the GOP gubernatorial nomination.

SO TAKE THIS TO THE BANK; If Bolling is indeed dropping out of the race for governor, he did it only after asking McDonnell what he should do. And the governor said he understood why Bolling might make that decision.

Like Nixon and Gore, it may be that Cuccinelli will be either too proud, or too stubborn, to  accept the help he really doesn’t want. But if Bolling does drop out, then McDonnell has sent Cuccinelli a signal: I am not your enemy.

Cuccinelli could gloat. Or he could deal. We shall see.