Bolling's Last Stand 

Shunned by his party, one of Virginia's top Republicans may give voters their first credible independent candidate for governor.

click to enlarge As lieutenant governor, Bill Bolling presides over the state Senate and casts tie-breaking votes in the body, which is split 20-20 between Republicans and Democrats. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • As lieutenant governor, Bill Bolling presides over the state Senate and casts tie-breaking votes in the body, which is split 20-20 between Republicans and Democrats.

He lacks Tim Kaine's charm, Bob McDonnell's hair, Mark Warner's wealth, Terry McAuliffe's national connections and Ken Cuccinelli's flair for sparking headlines.

His biggest personality quirk is that he recently joined Weight Watchers. He lost 45 pounds and has a canned joke about it: "Just doing my part to reduce the size of government." His idea of a fun weekend getaway is a night at his Wintergreen condo. He doesn't ski, though — "Oh no," he says, laughing. "I'm not that active."

Yes, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling is one of the least sexy figures in Virginia politics.

But suddenly, he's turning heads. He's become a favorite subject of salivating bloggers, breathless political columnists and bewildered Republican Party observers. Newspaper pundits are digging into details as mundane as the upholstery of his office furniture. And his tie-breaking votes in the evenly divided state Senate — the lieutenant governor presides over the chamber — keep everyone guessing.

"I don't know what's going on and I've had people ask me: 'Where is Bill Bolling? Who is this guy that's taken his place?'" says Norman Leahy, editor of the conservative blog BearingDrift.com. "And I have to tell them, 'You know, I'm not entirely sure.'"

It's all but assured that Virginians will have two main-party candidates to choose as their next governor come November: Terry McAuliffe, the Democrat, and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican.

And now, there's this. Bolling is weighing an independent run for governor that has the potential to be the most credible in recent memory. If he can raise the cash and decides to enter the race, some pundits say he could well beat his presumptive opponents — or at the very least, garner enough votes to have a major impact on the outcome.

Bolling hasn't decided whether to run, he says. But he's set a deadline to make the call by March 14.

In the interim, Bolling has cut to the center on some key issues while he works to position himself as a conservative moderate. He's split with his longtime ally Gov. Bob McDonnell on transportation, saying he's willing to (gasp!) support an increase in the gas tax to fund an overhaul. And in late January, he refused to back up his Republican colleagues in the Senate when they sprang a surprise redistricting plan on Democrats. Oh, and he describes a private meeting with Democrat McAuliffe as positive.

But amid the excited speculation over his decision to break with his party, some hardcore Republicans are left scratching their heads and wondering: Who is this man and what has he done with the real Bill Bolling?

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click to enlarge Bolling talks to voters at the Shad Planking, an annual political event near Wakefield that draws politicos from across the state. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Bolling talks to voters at the Shad Planking, an annual political event near Wakefield that draws politicos from across the state.

Before he emerged in recent months as an evangelist for moderate, pragmatic Republicanism, Bolling's political career was as plodding and methodical as any.

A 55-year-old vice president at an independent insurance agency, Bolling entered politics in 1991 when he ran for the Hanover County Board of Supervisors and won. Four years later, he was elected to the state Senate, where he served until his election as lieutenant governor in 2005.

As a senator, Bolling developed a reputation as a Republican loyalist who toed the party line. "He was a conservative Republican who certainly felt that the road to the nomination was by being a clearly identified conservative on tax issues and on social issues," political analyst Bob Holsworth says. During Bolling's tenure there was a clearly defined group of moderate Republicans in the Senate. And Bolling, Holsworth says, was always to the right of them.

Bolling deferred his gubernatorial ambitions in 2009, deciding not to run against his friend McDonnell, then attorney general. It was part of what Bolling says was the pair's eight-year plan. He would support McDonnell — and then McDonnell would support him. They made a good team, Bolling says, and McDonnell's organization was better positioned to win in 2009.

Last year the McDonnell endorsement came, but so did what Bolling describes as a "stealth attack" from Cuccinelli. The assumption had been that "Cuccinelli would wait his turn and run in 2017," University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato says.

Instead, Cuccinelli engineered an end-run around Bolling, working behind the scenes to get his supporters elected to the Republican Party's Central Committee. Once installed, they voted over the summer to switch from a statewide primary nomination system to a convention-style nomination — an event dominated by party activists who view Cuccinelli as something of a rock star.

Bolling had been expected to fair well in a more broad-based open primary, but the prospect of a convention contest all but assured his defeat.

Caught off guard, Bolling says that by the time he figured out what was happening it was too late to react. "I don't like the way he did it," Bolling says of Cuccinelli, "but it was an effective strategy for him."

Bolling held out hope that Mitt Romney would win the presidential election, which he says very well could have resulted in McDonnell getting pulled to Washington for a position in a Republican administration. McDonnell's departure before his term's end would have bumped Bolling up to governor, giving him an edge as an incumbent in the GOP convention.

When Romney lost, Bolling decided to strike out on his own. His eight-year plan was a bust.

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click to enlarge Bolling introduces then-Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney at a campaign stop in Caroline County. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Bolling introduces then-Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney at a campaign stop in Caroline County.

With the General Assembly in session on a recent Monday, Bolling is about to throw on a suit jacket and rush out of his office to preside over the Senate's afternoon session. He says he's made peace with what's happened, even if he isn't entirely happy about it.

He repeats phrases such as "these are the cards we've been dealt" and "this is not the position we wanted to be in." But in the same breath, he suggests that getting outmaneuvered by Cuccinelli is one of the best things that's ever happened to him. It has allowed him to find his "independent voice," Bolling says.

"The most liberating thing about this whole process for me has been that it's enabled me to look more objectively at the issues facing our state and figure out what's right for Virginia as opposed to worrying about ... what the political consequences of the decisions may have been," he says. "To a certain extent, it's a decision I wish I would have made a long time ago. ... It has enabled me to find my voice more than anything I've done in 22 years of government, frankly."

Enter Bolling's tie-breaking votes in the evenly divided Senate. This year, for the first time in his career, Bolling went against members of his party and his old ally McDonnell when he supported the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Bolling bucked his party again — along with some of his traditional supporters in the business community — when he opposed lifting the moratorium on uranium mining in the state.

Most recently, he went against McDonnell's transportation plan, telling The Washington Post that he supports raising the gas tax as part of a funding overhaul. It's a move Bolling acknowledges would be disastrous if he were still in the running for the Republican nomination.

"There are always certain pressures placed upon you by your party, or politics, to do things a certain way," he says, adding that he isn't sure where he would have come down on the issues if he were still seeking the Republican endorsement. "I can't honestly answer," he says. "But you know, in life, you just have to play the cards you're dealt."

Make no mistake, Bolling is still a Republican — he just isn't a happy Republican. During a recent session he sided with his fellow conservatives on seven bills, including measures that tighten voter ID requirements.

But by going against his party on a handful of high-profile issues, Bolling has been able to position himself as the moderate, independent candidate, something he says is missing in the coming gubernatorial election. The conventional wisdom long has been that in order for a Republican or Democrat to win, the candidate must float to the middle. That means Republicans' distancing themselves from social issues such as abortion, and Democrats' backing away from liberal causes, such as gay marriage. Statewide elections are about jobs, the economy and taxes — a point Bolling emphasizes as he makes the case for his candidacy.

Cuccinelli, he says, is too well known for championing divisive positions to garner enough support in a top-of-the-ticket campaign. Bolling doesn't mention any specifically, but a few easily come to mind: the controversial abortion clinic regulations he backed, his crusade against a University of Virginia climate scientist, and the advisory he issued to public colleges advising them they couldn't not discriminate against gays.

"If you nominate candidates who are viewed as being too extreme, too ideologically driven, ... known for confrontation — you're not going to win," he says.

On top of all that, Bolling hopes to seize upon the general public's discontent over the partisan gridlock that has engulfed the country. "I think a lot of people today are just fed up with Republicans and Democrats, and just kind of fed up with the political process as usual," he says. "So you put all that together and it creates a rather unique opportunity. And it's gone in directions we didn't anticipate."

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click to enlarge Gov. Bob McDonnell and George Allen, a former governor and U.S. senator, share a moment at the Shad Planking. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Gov. Bob McDonnell and George Allen, a former governor and U.S. senator, share a moment at the Shad Planking.

But does an independent candidate really stand a chance in a state that hasn't elected one? With varying degrees of certainty, the short answer seems to be yes — if Bolling can raise the money.

"With a competitive sum in his war chest, Bolling could win," Sabato says. "Cuccinelli and McAuliffe are both very controversial, and you hear almost everywhere the wish that there was another choice."

As a two-term lieutenant governor, Bolling has the necessary credibility to be that choice, Sabato says.

Holsworth is less certain about Bolling's chances, but agrees that it mostly will come down to how much money he can raise. "There's probably more and more people supportive today of that idea, but Bolling has some very serious challenges," he says.

The most recent poll released by Quinnipiac University gives him 13 percent of the vote in a contest against McAuliffe and Cuccinelli, who remain locked in a statistical tie with 34 and 31 percent of the vote, respectively.

But Bolling is quick to note that he hasn't even said he'll enter the race yet. And he says his internal polling shows that 62 percent of Virginians have indicated a willingness to support a credible independent candidate. The Quinnipiac poll found that most voters don't know enough about Bolling to have an opinion about him.

Most politicos, including Bolling, agree that he would need to pull together at least $15 million to run a competitive campaign. Bolling had $749,000 on hand at the end of 2012, according to campaign finance data compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project.

Bolling says he isn't sure he'll be able to raise the money. And because of a ban prohibiting members of the General Assembly from raising campaign funds while in session, he says he won't have begun reaching out to potential donors.

Anecdotally, though, Bolling says he's encouraged by what he's been hearing from supporters. "Everywhere I go, I've got people coming up to me, saying, 'We really want you to run as an independent because we want a choice — a more mainstream choice in this campaign,'" Bolling says.

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click to enlarge Bolling and his wife, Jean Ann, exit the Capitol on inauguration day as then-Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele and George Allen look on. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Bolling and his wife, Jean Ann, exit the Capitol on inauguration day as then-Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele and George Allen look on.

Bolling declines to say how many sitting Republicans have indicated they'd support his candidacy. Leahy, the BearingDrift.com editor and a Cuccinelli supporter, says that's because few, if any, do.

Leahy says that Bolling has, in a matter of months, completely abandoned the core principals for which he's fought throughout his career. "He was always someone who said, 'We can find savings elsewhere in the budget,'" Leahy says. "Now he's doing things that just run counter to the person who was in the Senate and, for that matter, was lieutenant governor up until he suspended his gubernatorial campaign."

As for Bolling's concerns with the future of the Republican Party in the hands of Cuccinelli, Leahy likens it to a "cranky old man with pants pulled up over his waist, saying, 'Get out of my yard.'"

"This is, in many ways, Cuccinelli's party," Leahy says. "Bill Bolling and his friends — they don't understand it. They can't control it. And that's why they fear it."

The characterization is at the heart of the deep rift forming in the party — a fight that's playing out most publicly in the hostility between Bolling and Cuccinelli.

Bolling evangelizes the virtues of moderate conservatism as the only path to winning statewide office in Virginia, while Cuccinelli supporters say the principled conservative firebrand brings youth, dynamism and a future to a staid formula, something Bolling and his ilk don't get.

The Cuccinelli campaign declines to comment on Bolling's potential candidacy, and most sitting Republicans have been silent on the subject. But Bolling says he understands exactly where his party is heading, and that's why he's worried.

"The party is dominated by a group that believes that there is this huge, silent majority out there just waiting for a candidate to come along to promote an unadulterated conservative ideology," he says. "And they believe that if they do, that this huge groundswell of support will spring out to sweep that candidate into office. I just don't see that." S

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