If the polls coming out of Virginia are to be believed, the state's Republican Party is headed to a historic defeat on Nov. 5.
Not since 1977 has the party controlling the White House won the Virginia governor's mansion in the following year's election. Yet 12 months after President Obama won re-election, Democrat Terry McAuliffe holds a steady lead heading into the home stretch over his gubernatorial opponent, Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.
But a loss would do more than break a streak that has tickled political scientists for more than three decades. It would be the third election in four tries that Democrats won the governor's race in a state that has shifted from a reliably red southern stronghold to an increasingly purple battleground where national Republicans will have to focus time and resources for decades to come. After a half century of Republican dominance, President Obama has twice won in Virginia, and the GOP has lost three consecutive U.S. Senate races.
And if the polls hold, Democrats would sweep the three statewide races — governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general — for the first time since 1989, an astounding feat considering the ticket is led by a candidate who has never worked in Virginia government and six months ago couldn’t name a single cabinet position in the Old Dominion.
None of this is lost on the Republican Party, where hopes of a turnaround hang on poor Democratic turnout and winning back support it has lost to third-party Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis, who is polling in double digits.
But even as Republicans in the state refuse to give up, they're already preparing for the postmortems that would be written if the expected blow is delivered. It will fit neatly into a national narrative of infighting within the GOP that emerged amid the 2012 presidential election and ignited with the government shutdown.
“When a party loses an election, the first step is usually a circular firing squad,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia. “People will blame the candidate. People will blame the media. But the first question Republicans are going to have to answer, assuming the polls hold, is how much of this is a result of the messenger, how much of this is a result of the message?”
Factions within the party already are digging in for the fight. The establishment has privately bemoaned for months that Cuccinelli was a controversial conservative firebrand and that the Tea Party is to blame for forcing a nominating convention instead of a primary. This stripped the party of its rightful heir, the comparably moderate Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling. But the Tea Party is warning against this line of attack.
“The people who come out immediately and start bashing the Tea Party will be marked,” said John Jaggers, director of operations for the Northern Virginia Tea Party. “They will be well known in circles and it will be hard for them to come out and get us to to support them in the future.”
Others have questioned the type of campaign Cuccinelli has run, wondering if he failed to make the case for fiscal conservatism at a time when many Virginians are critical of the budget woes in Washington across the Potomac.
“I’m very frustrated,” former Republican Party chairman Pat McSweeney said. “You have to ask him why he hasn’t done that. He seemed to be the very best messenger for that. But his campaign did not pursue that line.”
Jaggers said improving the get-out-the-vote efforts is just as important as the message and the messenger.
“I have not observed the quality of resources to make that happen and that is discouraging for a lot of activists,” Jaggers said. “It’s very disheartening to knock on a door and not knowing if that’s a door you should be knocking on.”
Regardless, the Republican Party will need to swiftly figure out what kind of party emerges from the carnage of a brutally negative campaign. Next year, Republicans must field a candidate to run against Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, who enjoys unprecedented popularity despite being an incumbent from a maligned institution.
“The danger is overcomplicating it. It’s not that complicated,” McSweeney said. “I look upon it as an opportunity to start over with a principled agenda, and I’m convinced the major problems facing us is an opportunity to organize the party and do what’s right for the commonwealth.”