Who wins if Cuccinelli loses?

Ken Cuccinelli is on the ropes in the Virginia Governor’s race – which is one reason George Will raised some eyebrows last week with his glowing treatment of Robert Sarvis, the Libertarian candidate.  Why would a national, established Republican commentator like Will take what looks like an obvious swipe at a major party candidate in one of the two major races going on in 2013?

If trends continue and Cuccinelli loses, there will be another obvious dent in the narrative that the GOP brand is on the rebound  and well-positioned for victory in 2014.  Combined with the fallout from the government shutdown, it will be the second setback of the fall for Republicans, (overshadowing, to some degree, the failed rollout of Obamacare).

As the polls look now, it’s pretty likely to shake out that way.  But not all losses are created equal.  A less-than-50% win for Terry McAuliffe combined with a strong showing from the Sarvis, actually benefits some entities:

1.  Bill Bolling.  Remember Fredo Corleone’s reaction when he got passed over for his kid brother?  Supporters of party conventions over primaries like to say that the non-public, keep-it-in-the-family method of choosing a nominee is less hurtful, but that theory flew out the window in this case.  Rather than playing the good soldier and supporting his nominee, Bolling has waged an un-campaign by creating his own policy organization.  And the word on the street is that he has done some behind-the-scenes work for McAuliffe.  A race where Cuccinelli loses – but center-right candidates, combined, draw a majority – gives further credibility to Bolling in 2017 if he opts to run for Governor calling for a more moderate direction for the state party.

2.  Chris Christie.  Back in the day, the odd, off-off-year elections in Virginia and New Jersey meant split victories: Republicans would take the Old Dominion, Democrats would notch the Garden State.  This year, Christie’s runaway reelection victory will buck the trend.  As the most recent Republican winner, it will position him well with top donors and consultants as he prepares for his Presidential run in 2016.  There may also be some who look at a split-vote loss in Virginia as a sign that the GOP needs to moderate nationally.  While it would be a mistake for Christie or his team to make that case publicly, behind closed doors they can make that case to party leaders deciding where they ought to contribute their endorsements and dollars.

3.  Rand Paul.  Very quietly, Rand Paul has been having a great couple of months.  Once considered the most outspoken and conservative among the serious potential Republican field for 2016, Ted Cruz’s filibuster has allowed Paul to present himself as more publicly reserved than the Texas Senator.   While moderates would point to a Cuccinelli loss as a need for a philosophical shift toward the center, Paul could make the case that the split vote means the party has not done enough to make the case to voters equating smaller government with better government.  Since this argument does not involve telling conservative voters they are philosophically wrong, Paul could have the most to gain from a tight loss in Virginia.  (That Paul actually campaigned for Cuccinelli puts him in a better position, as well.)

4.  Conservative/Republican Commentators.  That’s not to say that any of the above folks, or their supporters, goaded Will into his story, of course.  Nationally, if Cuccinelli loses in part because of Sarvis, GOP talking heads can write off the loss as the product of vote-splitting and focus on what looks like an easy victory in New Jersey.  The tough loss might hurt the Commonwealth, but for the people who scream at cameras for a living, it provides an easy pivot point for cable news debates.

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