The Cuccinelli Blame Game And The GOP Civil War

Accusations of blame are already being tossed around about why Republicans lost in Virginia, and they mirror a broader debate in the Republican Party nationally.

Elephants Fighting

As I predicted before the election, Ken Cuccinelli’s loss in the Virginia Governor’s race has set off a round of finger pointing and blaming. While such a “blame game” would have occurred regardless of what the margin of defeat was, the fact that Terry McAuliffe won by only two points seems to be making the arguments from the pro-Cuccinelli game all the more vehement. If only for the betrayals, they seem to be arguing, we would have had the momentum to put our candidate over the top.

Some Cuccinelli supporters are blaming the people who voted for Libertarian Party nominee Robert Sarvis and, indeed, if you just go by the results, the roughly 6% of the vote that Sarvis received would have been enough to put Cuccinelli over the top. However, that argument presumes that the people who voted for Sarvis would have supported Cuccinelli had he been on the ballot. Given the firmness of Sarvis’s support during the campaign, it’s likely quite likely that a good number of his voters would have simply stayed home on Election Day rather than forced to choose between two unpalatable candidates. Additionally, polling before the election seemed to suggest that Sarvis voters would’ve picked McAuliffe as their nominee by enough of a rate that the additional votes still wouldn’t have been enough for Cuccinelli to win. Nonetheless, it’s likely that many Cuccinelli supporters will continue to believe that it was Sarvis who cost them the election, in no small part because it’s a more comfortable conclusion than blaming the candidate himself. (In this regard, please see Chris Cillizza’s post at The Fix Robert Sarvis didn’t cost Ken Cuccinelli the Virginia governor’s race)

In addition to Sarvis, though, there is significant ire being directed a number of other supposed causes:

RICHMOND — Anyone expecting Ken Cuccinelli and the conservative wing of the Virginia GOP to lie down and admit defeat was disappointed Tuesday night.

After Cuccinelli’s closer-than-expected loss, the defiant candidate and his supporters said the election results were only a blip on the radar of the larger conservative struggle as they blamed the defeat on Obamacare and a deluge of Democratic attack ads. Some Cuccinelli backers privately steamed that the national party did not do more to shore up Cuccinelli against Democrat Terry McAuliffe and his enormous war chest.

The Republican candidate’s surprise showing touched off a round of recriminations among the GOP’s conservative and moderate wings — between Republicans who say Cuccinelli’s strict profile on social issues antagonized critical middle-of-the-road voters and those who say a good conservative candidate was tossed overboard by his party leadership. A lopsided Democratic victory might have given moderates a clear leg up in that debate; instead, the battle between the two factions over what – if anything – needs to change is bound to rage on.

“This isn’t a total loss at all,” Virginia GOP Chairman Pat Mullins told the crowd after Cuccinelli conceded the governor’s race. “Keep in mind that Terry McAuliffe got less than 50 percent of the vote, so he does not have a mandate to do anything. And looking at the House races … we still have a [Republican-led] House that will block any crazy ideas he may have.”

Mullins blasted out-of-state Democratic money and media bias as the major sources of Cuccinelli’s problems in the race.

By “outside forces,” Republicans are primarily referring to the boatload of outside money that Terry McAuliffe was able to bring into the campaign over the past year, a process that was made easier by the fact that Virginia has no real limits on the amount that someone can contribute to an individual campaign. For example, the largest single contribution to any candidate in Virginia this year came from Napster co-founder, and first President of Facebook, Sean Parker, who wrote out a check for $500,000 to McAuliffe in mid-October. Cuccinelli, by contrast, received very little money from out of state, even from the Tea Party groups that have typically helped fund candidacies such as his in the past. Of course, Cuccinelli was at a distinct disadvantage here to begin with. He never has been very big at fundraising in his previous races, and he was going up against the guy who had spent a many year raising tens of millions of dollars for Bill Clinton and the Democratic National Committee. With a rolodex like that, it’s no surprise that McAuliffe won the fundraising game. At the same time, though, it’s kind of lame for Virginia Republicans to blame this “outside support when they barely made any effort to raise funds for their candidate outside the state to begin with. Whether it’s the state party, or Cuccinelli himself, there was nothing about this race that prevented Cuccinelli from engaging in better fundraising. Given who they were going up against, they should have known what McAuliffe was going to be able to bring to the table. The fact that they were not able to compete in that area strikes me as being their fault, not his and not the fault of those outside supporters that supported McAuliffe.

In addition to “outside forces,” though, there’s also ire being directed at fellow Republicans:

[B]ecause the race came so close, far right Republicans blame the GOP establishment for not doing more to give Cuccinelli a boost. The Republican National Committee put $9 million into Gov. Bob McDonnell’s campaign in 2009. This year, Cuccinelli got $3 million. Cuccinelli “was betrayed by his own party,” Rush Limbaugh told listeners on Wednesday afternoon, but the betrayal was not a surprise. Limbaugh said:

“In Virginia the GOP simply didn’t want a Tea Party candidate winning there.  They just didn’t.  ‘Cause they coulda won that race, folks.  I mean, it’s really a shame.  I was gonna say stunning, but it really isn’t stunning.”

Limbaugh, like many other conservatives, argues that contrary to the media narrative — Republicans win when they’re moderates like Chris Christie and lose when they’re conservatives like Cuccinelli — the opposite is true. Conservatives just need to be given a chance to thrive. But instead, resources were withheld from Cuccinelli, “So now the Republican establishment can run around and claim the Tea Party is an albatross around their neck.” Conservative radio host Mark Levin tweeted Wednesday morning that Cuccinelli’s loss was “RINO sabotage.” Levin referred to reports that Chris Christie refused to campaign for Cuccinelli, and linked to a story noting that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s former chief of staff joined the McAuliffe campaign.

Meanwhile, a Cucccinelli adviser blames the Republican Govenor’s Association and Bobby Jindal:

Bobby Jindal and his political team totally blew it,” harrumphed one advisor for Ken Cuccinelli the morning after a closer-than-expected loss.

Cuccinelli, who narrowly lost last night’s gubernatorial election to Terry McAuliffe, was badly outspent in the days and weeks leading up to the election. The New York Times‘ Jonathan Martin described Cuccinelli’s plight as having been “close to abandoned at the end.” He was. As Politico’s James Hohmann reported, ”The Republican National Committee spent about $3 million on Virginia this year, compared to $9 million in the 2009.” And as the Roanoke Times noted, in 2009, the Chamber of Commerce spent $973,000 on Bob McDonnell, but “[t]his year, the chamber gave Cuccinelli nothing.”


“Bobby Jindal’s presidential campaign is over,” said the Cuccinelli advisor. “He screwed this up so bad. And I don’t know why. The campaign knew it was moving numbers over ObamaCare. And the RGA was not very far from that information, they could have obtained it themselves,” the advisor continued. “They should have given the money to the campaign to spend as opposed to running these stupid China ads. They just blew it.”

To be sure, the Cuccinelli campaign did seem to bring to the forefront long simmering tensions in the Republican Party between the Tea Party and the more “establishment” wing of the party. Nowhere was this most apparent than inside the Republican Party of Virginia itself where the bad blood between Cuccinelli and Lt. Governor Bill Bolling over the former’s decision to seek the Governor’s office this year notwithstanding what many believed was “gentlemen’s agreement” that Bolling would be the next in line to succeed Bob McDonnell after having stood aside for McDonnell in 2009. Bolling not only refused to endorse Cuccinelli but peppered the press with plenty of negative comments about Virginia’s Attorney General and even considered running as an Independent for Governor before abandoning the idea and spending the election season performing his regular duties and trout fishing on the weekends. Led in no small part by Bolling’s disdain, there was a not inconsiderable portion of the what might be described as old-line Republicans here in the Old Dominion who either sat the election out, or in some cases openly backed McAuliffe over Cuccinelli.  And, of course, there were at least some Republicans who backed Sarvis because they could not bring themselves to support a candidate as socially conservative as Cuccinelli.

So, yes, there was disunity on the Republican side that quite probably contributed to Cuccinell’s problems. The question that needs to be asked, though, is whose fault that disunity was and what it means going forward.

Cuccinelli supporters, of course, would put it down to a simple matter of party loyalty, and that Republicans ought to be supporting Republican candidates no matter what. The problem with this argument, though, is that ignores the diversity of opinion that exists inside a modern American political party and assumes that people will support anyone with an R after their name. While this is no doubt true of some people, it’s not universally true, and it often becomes the exception rather than the rule when  you’re talking about a candidate that comes with a significant amount of controversy or baggage or controversy attached to them, a description that seems to describe Ken Cuccinelli perfectly.

More broadly, though, the split that we saw in Virginia among Republicans seems to be reflective of something that appears to be happening across the nation. Having stood by and done nothing for the most part for the past three years or so, more traditional Republicans, especially those tied to the business community, are now openly making moves that clearly designed to take on the Tea Party forces behind candidates like Cuccinelli:

Leaders of the Republican establishment, alarmed by the emergence of far-right and often unpredictable Tea Party candidates, are pushing their party to rethink how it chooses nominees and advocating changes they say would result in the selection of less extreme contenders.

The push comes as the national Republican Party is grappling with vexing divisions over its identity and image, and mainstream leaders complain that more ideologically-driven conservatives are damaging the party with tactics like the government shutdown.

The debate intensified on Wednesday after Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, the deeply conservative Republican candidate for governor of Virginia, lost a close race in which Democrats highlighted his opposition to abortion in almost all circumstances, his views on contraception and comments in which he seemed to liken immigration policy to pest control

The party leaders pushing for changes want to replace state caucuses and conventions, like the one that nominated Mr. Cuccinelli, with a more open primary system that they believe will draw a broader cross-section of Republicans and produce more moderate candidates.

Similar pushes are already underway in other states, including Montana and Utah, and last week Mitt Romney said Republicans should consider how to overhaul their presidential nominating process to attract a wider range of voters. He suggested that states holding open primaries be rewarded with more delegates to the party’s national convention.

While the discussion may appear arcane, it reflects a fierce struggle for power between the activist, often Tea Party-dominated wing of the Republican Party — whose members tend to be devoted to showing up and organizing at events like party conventions — and the more mainstream wing, which is frustrated by its inability to rein in the extremist elements and by the fact that its message is not resonating with more voters.

“Conventions by nature force candidates and campaigns to focus on a very small group of party activists,” said Phil Cox, executive director of the Republican Governors Association and a longtime Virginia-based strategist. He grimaced at the successful movement by conservative activists in his state earlier this year to switch from a primary system to a convention system. “If the goal is actually to win elections, holding more primaries would be a good start.”

With control of the Senate expected to turn on a handful of races around the country next year, Republican leaders are worried about the outcome in Iowa, where a crowded field of G.O.P. candidates has taken shape, including several untested ones. If no one receives 35 percent of the primary vote, the nominee will be selected by a convention.

“Conventions have a flimsy track record of selecting the most electable candidates,” David Kochel, an Iowa-based Republican strategist, said in an interview on Wednesday. “There’s just no good substitute for a full-scale vetting by a large universe of primary voters.”

Indeed, one can trace the beginning of the rift in the Republican Party of Virginia to the point when Cuccinelli and his supporters, with the support of an RPV State Central Committee that had become dominated by Cuccinelli supporters, abandoned what had become the party’s traditional method of picking its statewide nominees via a primary to select a convention. It was the second time in five years that they had gone this route, the first time being in 2008 when picking a nominee to fill the seat of retiring Senator John Warner, but unlike that first time there was no doubt this time that the convention would result in the selection of a slate of candidates that tacked to the right of the party, and the Commonwealth. Not only did this year’s convention cause Bolling to drop out of the race against Cuccinelli, it also resulted in the selection of E.W. Jackson Jr. as the Lt. Governor nominee despite the fact that it was clear that he was, to put it nicely, just a little bit unhinged. Based on how the election went in Virginia, you can expect to see a battle to move back to a primary system there starting with next year when Republicans will need to pick a nominee to take on Senator Mark Warner.

So, in the end, there is some truth to the part of the “blame game” surrounding Cuccinelli’s loss that points to GOP disunity in the face of a ticket that included people like Cuccinelli and Jackson. However, the reasons for that disunity can be found in something that just seems to be starting, and that’s a battle for the future of the Republican Party.

Update: The original version of this post had formatting errors that likely made it difficult for some readers to follow. They seem to have all been repaired now.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Mu says:

    Short version: “unfair, we cornered the nomination, now you’re duty bound to give us all your support and all your money (well, at least all of the later)”

  2. Mikey says:

    The Republicans can whine all they want about how close it was, but they don’t seem to understand the only reason it was close was because McAuliffe is not well-regarded by many Democrats. Had the Democrats run a guy with greater appeal (imagine, hypothetically, Mark Warner deciding to vacate his Senate seat to run again), Cuccinelli would have been destroyed.

    Also, ABC’s exit polling indicated twice as many Sarvis voters would have voted for McAuliffe as for Cuccinelli, had Sarvis not been on the ballot. So any GOP assertions that Sarvis cost them the election are mistaken.

    Also also, turnout was five points higher among Democrats than in Virginia’s previous gubernatorial election, and four points lower among Republicans. A nine-point swing in favor of the Democrats certainly contributed to the GOP loss.

  3. grumpy realist says:

    If the Tea Partiers want to draw the conclusion that the only thing they need to do is push even further right (more cowbell) and harangue the Business-side Republicans into giving them more money (all the while verbally abusing them as crony capitalists and RINOs)….well…..more power to them.

    The Democratic party will continue to sit here on the sidelines, throwing peanuts, and watch the civil war between the Sane Republicans and the Insane Republicans.

  4. michael reynolds says:


    Yes, but those are just facts. Mere reality. The Tea Party is above reality.

  5. Ron Beasley says:

    Cuccinelli is a right wing lunatic. If the Democrats had not run such a slimeball it would have been a blowout.

  6. CSK says:

    Limbaugh and Levin offered the same explanation for Christine O’Donnell’s ignominious defeat: If only that liberal lefty RINO traitor John Cornyn had given her huge sums, she would have won in a landslide.

  7. Mikey says:

    @michael reynolds: Yeah, I got an e-mail yesterday from a group of my more conservative friends, titled “Look to Cruz, Not to Christie,” which contained this gem of denial:

    Even the media found it a little difficult to sustain the this-is-a-defeat-for-the-Tea-Party narrative after the Virginia results came in, as they showed a race that the Republicans could easily have won, had the Libertarian not run, had Cuccinelli actually tried, had stingy Republican fat cats donated money to ad campaigns, had Republicans bothered to expose McAuliffe’s radicalism, etc.

    And then there’s this delightful bit of inanity:

    A basic test for any GOP nominee should be: Can this candidate win his own state? In Christie’s case, the question, despite Tuesday’s results, remains open. After all, he wasn’t exactly running against Hillary Clinton. Another test is: Can this candidate reclaim his own legislature for his party?

    As I mentioned on another thread, Reagan pulled a 49-state landslide in 1984 while his party lost seats in the Senate and the opposing party retained a 70-seat majority in the House.

    But, hey, let’s run the guy whose father goes around ranting about how evolution is a communist lie. That’ll prove how smart we all are!

  8. Just dropping a quick comment in here to note that I just realized that there were some odd formatting errors in this post that made it hard to follow. They appear to all be fixed now.

  9. ernieyeball says:

    …and last week Mitt Romney said Republicans should consider how to overhaul their presidential nominating process to attract a wider range of voters.

    HA! HA! HA! HA! Too late Mitt, you loser. We all remember what you really think.

    “There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what … who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims. … These are people who pay no income tax. … and so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

  10. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Cuccinelli supporters, of course, would put it down to a simple matter of party loyalty, and that Republicans ought to be supporting Republican candidates no matter what.

    Heh. The irony is rich with this coming from the people who are the first to scream “RINO!” and primary any one who does not toe their artificially imposed line.

  11. Anonne says:

    They don’t understand that a lot of people weren’t voting FOR McAuliffe but AGAINST Cuccinelli. The Sarvis voters largely represent that cohort at the extreme, but given no other choice, they would turn 2-1 for McAuliffe.

  12. Gustopher says:

    I think the problem wasn’t that Cuccinelli was in favor of violating women with a medically unnecessary ultrasound, but that he wasn’t doing it himself. He just wasn’t conservative enough, and didn’t make it a part of his life.

    Enough with these namby-pamby politicians who deal only in theory. Perhaps next time they can run a pharmacist who will not dispense birth control.

  13. Latino_in_Boston says:

    If the lesson is that the GOP should go further right, I have one single question. What would that look like? I mean how much further right can they go? They’re already close to par on pre-enlightment ideas (no contraceptives! no evolution! guns for everyone at all times! etc.).

    Unless they go full Nazi, I don’t see how they could go further right.

  14. gVOR08 says:

    @Latino_in_Boston: I don’t know how either, but they’ll find a way. Apparently no matter how right wing a GOP is, he still has to fear a challenge from the right. Locally, that’s how we lost Rep. Jean Schmidt to a Tea Party challenger. Apparently crazy knows no limits.

  15. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @Latino_in_Boston: Full-on The Handmaid’s Tale with a bit of “white people are God’s Chosen” added in.

  16. Mikey says:

    If you want to understand what the Tea Party wing of the GOP thinks about what happened to Cuccinelli, read this.

    How can anyone be so entirely divorced from reality?

  17. Stan says:

    The “GOP Civil War” is about tactics and strategy, not war aims. As far as I know, all factions in the Republican party support cutting food stamps and most support refusing Medicaid expansion. The Tea Party may be crazy, but at least it’s honest.

  18. Woody says:


    Excellent link – “Reaganite Cuccinelli” and “Jackson’s mainstream Christian beliefs” rhetoric speaks volumes. The comments were unanimously – and vociferously – anti-Christie, anti-Republican Party.

    Look, aside from the potshots at the GOP and Christie, the article was little different than what is broadcast on Fox and Friends every single day (the 5am CST is on at my gym, so it’s always there).

    The Murdoch viewers follow one media: Fox. This is great for News Corp, but it’s evolved into a finger-trap for conservatives. A significant portion of their audience has watched this – exclusively – for 20 years. This is the only reality they know – any pre-Fox memories have been subsumed into the Faith. And any challenges to the Faith (often reality-based) can be nothing more than a test of their Faith.

    20 years. Do not underestimate the profound effects of Time.

  19. grumpy realist says:

    @Woody: It really is getting to be like the Soviets, isn’t it? 40 years of telling themselves that they didn’t need market signals and they could run a command economy. Then at some point economic gravity finally took notice and the entire system imploded.

    You can’t ignore reality. You really, really can’t. Prate as loudly as you want that the critical mass of plutonium is 200 kg, or that evolution doesn’t happen, or that global warming isn’t occurring. Result? You get blown up, attacked by antibiotic-resistant diseases, or end up finding your house under water. Mama Nature doesn’t care what fairy stories you tell yourself in order to massage your own ego.

    And she’s one hell of a MEAN bitch.

  20. george says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    Cuccinelli is a right wing lunatic. If the Democrats had not run such a slimeball it would have been a blowout.

    Agree with this. Though I have to wonder why the Democrats ran such a slimeball. That could come back to hurt them next time around – he’s the face of the Democrats statewise, and what he does will rebound on all of them.

  21. Lenoxus says:


    A lot of that is just rhetoric, though. Has a single Congresscritter actually proposed a federal ban on contraception, for example? (I know that 20 of them sponsored a Federal Marriage Amendment which would require that no state recognize any same-sex marriage, so I could be underestimating them when it comes to contraception.) That sort of thing would be a serious step rightward.

    Likewise, how about a non-legally-binding congressional recognition of the scientific falsity of the theory of evolution with respect to humans? (I’m just sort of fantasizing at this point. For some reason, my fantasies take the form of Republicans making themselves irrelevant rather than Democrats becoming more liberal… I just like to be realistic, I guess.)

    And in theory, they could go from an abstract discussion of cutting social programs to an explicit campaign stance of ending Medicare and Social Security. (Maybe refunding everyone who paid into it. See, I just made it workable, GOP! Please consider!)

    Per the “not conservative enough” principle, this would assure a high turnout among the Republican base. After all, it’s exactly in the Reagan tradition.

  22. Anonne says:

    From the link @Mikey:

    “With Cuccinelli’s totally avoidable loss, Terry McAuliffe, whose lifelong profession is Clinton operative, will be in position to secure Virginia for his puppet-mistress, Alinskyite neo-Marxist Hillary Clinton, in the 2016 presidential election.”

    Damn, trotting out Saul Alinsky again… when 90% of the population don’t even know who he is.

  23. Latino_in_Boston says:


    You’re right, Lenoxus. The rhetoric does not match actual legislation…yet. Only as proposals of their principles and such and at the local level. So matching rhetoric and reality would put them just to the left of Genghis Khan, which should do wonders for their political futures. I guess that’s what it would look like to actually go further right.

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