As one of only two states holding a gubernatorial election in 2013 (New Jersey is the other), Virginia stands to receive a lot of attention from political commentators starved for something to occupy themselves with after the conclusion of last year’s presidential election. The major party candidates are all but decided. The Republicans stand to nominate Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, while the Democrats are poised to offer former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe. This particular tandem of nominees has been seen in many quarters as presenting a choice between two unattractive candidates. Larry Sabato, the Director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, says that “There is real unhappiness with this choice. People really aren’t happy with McAuliffe or Cuccinelli. These two don’t fit the mold of what a Virginia governor is.” Unhappiness with McAuliffe tends to be rooted in the perception of him as a carpet-bagger (he grew up in Syracuse, New York) and in an image of him as a classic back-room political operative. For his part, Cuccinelli’s long record of controversial statements and actions is well-documented, and he has recently released a new book doubling down on his hyper-conservative views.
This palpable dissatisfaction has led some voters to look for an alternative. They may have found one in Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling. Bolling, a Republican, made an early effort to seek the Republican nomination for Governor but suspended his campaign after concluding that it would be too difficult to wrest the nomination from Cuccinelli. Even while doing so, Bolling pointedly refused to endorse Cuccinelli, saying of Cuccinelli “I have serious reservations about his ability to effectively and responsibly lead our state. Given those reservations, I could not in good conscience endorse his candidacy for Governor.”
Indeed, instead of endorsing his fellow Republican, Bolling is seriously considering launching an independent campaign for Governor against Cuccinelli and McAuliffe. A potential independent Bolling candidacy forces Americans to grapple with the possibilities and the limitations of trying to work outside of the two-party system. As the article linked to in the previous sentence indicates, it is difficult for third party or independent candidates to escape having their role reduced to that of the spoiler. The inclination to invoke the spoiler image is not entirely undeserved. Though others might disagree, I see Ralph Nader’s presidential candidacy in 2000 as having been critical to George W. Bush’s eventual victory in that election. Since 2000, the specter of Nader, and of the possibility for a third party or independent candidate to help get the candidate furthest removed from him or her elected, has loomed large over potential insurgent candidacies. But what does this mean for a Bolling bid? If Bolling were to draw enough moderate Republican votes to give the election to McAuliffe, would Bolling really be disappointed? I have a sneaking suspicion that Bolling may well prefer McAuliffe to Cuccinelli. What’s more, it is often hard to predict which major-party candidate potential spoilers might draw votes away from. In the 1980 Presidential election, moderate Republican John Anderson launched an independent Presidential campaign that many prognosticators thought might hurt Republican candidate Ronald Reagan by drawing the votes of moderate Republicans who saw Reagan as too conservative. Ultimately, however, Anderson drew at least as many votes from liberals disillusioned with President Jimmy Carter but unwilling to convert to Reaganism than he did from Republicans. If Bill Bolling decides to embark on the trail blazed by Nader, Anderson, Jesse Ventura, and other “spoilers,” it will make for an even more fascinating and unpredictable election and ensure that the political commentators who will descend on Virginia this year will have plenty to talk about.