Virginia Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling ended months of speculation Tuesday when he announced he would not run for governor as an independent, clearing the decks for an ideological battle between Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
The news sent both candidates scrambling to align themselves with Bolling in an effort to capture voters enamoured of his potential third-party run. McAuliffe noted his recent work with Bolling to push a transportation package through the General Assembly, and Cuccinelli promised his administration would be a continuation of the "[Gov. Bob] McDonnell, Bolling, Cuccinelli team."
Bolling, a Republican, endorsed neither. Instead, he reiterated doubts that either represents a mainstream option and warned both candidates to "run campaigns that are worthy of Virginia."
But the sniping started soon after Bolling bowed out. Cuccinelli used the moment to bash McAuliffe as "a career Washington insider and Democrat fundraiser." The state Democratic Party accused the Republican nominee of attempting to "drive Bolling out of the Republican Party" and called him "an extremist team of one."
Bolling's exit from the race eliminates a wild card that had the potential to derail either Cuccinelli or McAuliffe. His history in the GOP could have divided the state party as moderate Republicans gravitated toward Bolling and conservatives rallied around Cuccinelli.
Bolling running "would've helped McAuliffe by drawing attention away from him," said Craig Brians, a political science professor at Virginia Tech. "He becomes an average candidate when you have the mainstream Republican running as an outsider attacking the Republican nominee."
But in a low-turnout, three-way race, a winner needs just 34 percent of the vote. Cuccinelli's loyal base would have been difficult for the former Democratic National Committee chairman to overcome if Bolling scooped up independents and moderate Republicans disenchanted by the attorney general's conservative reputation.
"I would've been more worried about Bolling if I was McAuliffe than Cuccinelli," said Mo Elleithee, a Democratic consultant in Virginia. "Bolling could have split the anti-Cuccinelli vote. A lot of moderate Republicans who can never bring themselves to vote for Ken Cuccinelli would have had a choice of where to go if Bolling had gotten in the race. With him out of the race, a lot will go to McAuliffe."
In departing, Bolling ends a political career that a year ago still seemed to have a strong chance of landing him in the governor's mansion. The onetime heir apparent to McDonnell said he will finish his term and retreat to the private sector -- but not without some parting wisdom for voters.
"Our priority should be," he said, "on electing a governor who has the ability to effectively and responsibly govern our state and provide the mainstream leadership we need to solve problems, get things done and make Virginia a better place to live."