Republicans from across Virginia will gather in Richmond this weekend to officially anoint Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli as the party's nominee for governor and pick the rest of the ticket he will lead this fall.
For Cuccinelli, the moment is more than a year and a half in the making, the product of a headstrong effort that often divided his own party but also revealed the enviable organizational skills of a cadre of his conservative supporters.
With Cuccinelli slipping for the first time in the polls against Democrat Terry McAuliffe this week, Republicans hope the weekend gathering of 13,500 members will create a sense of unity within the party.
"You're going to see Tea Party folks, you're going to see Ron Paul folks, committed home schoolers, people from the business community, people who are just strong fiscal conservatives -- you're going to see every facet of the party there this weekend," said party spokesman Garren Shipley. "Every single candidate that leaves the convention will be nominated with more than 50 percent of the vote. I can't tell you what that does for unity going forward."
Cuccinelli's 2011 decision to enter the race shocked his party, particularly Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, Gov. Bob McDonnell's handpicked successor. The tension came to a head last year when Cuccinelli's Tea Party backers seized control of the state GOP's governing body and switched the nominating process from an open primary to closed convention. The move ultimately forced Bolling from the race and upset many of his allies, including McDonnell. Both Bolling and McDonnell will skip the convention.
The state's conservative activists see Saturday's coronation of Cuccinelli as their latest victory in the battle to move the state party further to the political right. They are expected to nominate a full slate of candidates -- including those running for lieutenant governor and attorney general -- who share their desire for lower taxes and limited government.
"Our perspective is that we've saved everyone a lot of money from a costly primary and we've enabled a wider field of candidates to choose from that tend to be more conservative than the rank-and-file people in the Republican Party," said John Jaggers of the Northern Virginia Tea Party. "It directly contradicts people like Bill Bolling who say the party is being exclusive."
Democrats labeled the GOP convention "a small group of Tea Party fanatics in Richmond" who intend "to attack climate science, women's health access, and more," and they'll spend the day rallying support for their candidate, former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe.
A Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday showed McAuliffe pulling ahead of Cuccinelli, 43 percent to 38 percent, though both candidates remain relatively unknown to voters.
"At this point," said Quinnipiac pollster Peter Brown,"neither man seems to have much of an edge."