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How the GOP misread Virginia

Democrats appear poised for another big electoral victory in Virginia on Tuesday.
/ Source: MSNBC TV

Democrats appear poised for another big electoral victory in Virginia on Tuesday.

Democrats appear poised for another big electoral victory in Virginia on Tuesday as conservative and Tea Party Republicans face real questions about whether they can win again in this fast-changing state.

The gubernatorial race between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli has remained unchanged for weeks, with McAuliffe holding a steady and sizable lead in most polls.  

Those surveys tell a stark story: The GOP is losing not because the party failed to nominate the most conservative candidate -- but because they did.

Cuccinelli's attempts to fashion himself a jobs and business-centered candidate were largely ineffective.

For the first time in decades, Virginia may be poised to elect a governor from the same party as the president.

Instead, his vocal positioning against abortion and gay marriage, along with his record as state attorney general, haunted his candidacy.

Poll after poll demonstrated key weakness for Cuccinelli: a deficit with women voters as high as 20 points, and problems with independents and GOP voters partial to Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis.

"Virginia has changed and they haven't," former Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, a moderate Republican who represented the D.C. suburbs for 14 years, said of his party's controlling conservative wing.

"They're an anachronism. They're losing young people, they're losing women, they're losing people moving in. You've got to adapt to that."

President Barack Obama took this once-reliable Republican stronghold in 2008 and again in 2012. The biggest political reality the GOP seems yet to come to grasps with: this isn't your grandmother's Virginia.

Buoyed by a growing and increasingly diverse population, especially in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., the state's political power has shifted from the more conservative, rural areas of the state. Anchored to its the major population centers, the electorate has become more moderate.

While the Democratic Party has adapted -- and successfully won two back-to-back Senate races with former governors Tim Kaine and Mark Warner -- the state's GOP illustrates the nationwide struggle between pragmatic candidates and Tea Party darlings.

After a disastrous 2008, a surge of angry GOP voters helped Republican Bob McDonnell, along with Cuccinelli, as his attorney general, sweep the state in 2009.

Yet while McDonnell was also a social conservative, he didn't campaign as one -- running instead on an economic platform. It worked.

Republicans were hopeful that against a polarizing nominee like McAuliffe, riddled with questions about his business ventures and the very picture of a Washington insider, Cuccinelli's own problems wouldn't be as magnified.

But Cuccinelli was trounced in ad spending, both by McAuliffe and outside Democratic groups, who defined him early and often as too extreme on social issues.

He was hammered on controversial statements he'd made on abortion, gay marriage and climate change. He tried to soften his image, boasting of his work on mental health, domestic violence, and even to free a man wrongly convicted of rape from prison, but the damage had been done.

Then a gifts scandal hit the current governor -- it not only touched Cuccinelli, but sidelined his best possible surrogate in the Old Dominion.

The Daily Rundown "Gaggle" talks about the ideologically driven Virginia gubernatorial race.

In the final days of the race, he's pivoted to his base, making the race a referendum on Obamacare and the president's shaky health care rollout. But he's running the risk of alienating swing voters.

Any one of those problems could be what Republicans blame should they lose Tuesday.

The real answer is much deeper than that -- it's the ideological schism within the GOP that's spread nationally.

Even with four decades of history pointing to Republican success in this state, the GOP's internal war over the direction of the party has imperiled their chances in what should be a very favorable climate.

Part of that dates back to how Cuccinelli was nominated. He won the GOP nod last spring after his allies, who had taken hold in the party, forced a convention rather than a primary to chose the nominee.

Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling had his eye on the governor's mansion after deferring to McDonnell in 2009. But he knew he couldn't win at a gathering that's become dominated by conservative party activists and he withdrew. 

The lone hope for Republicans on Tuesday could be the attorney general's race, where Republican Mark Obenshain and Democrat Mark Herring are locked in a close contest.

Ads paint Obenshain as like-minded with Cuccinelli on social issues -- an ominous note even state delegate races have taken, showing how toxic the top of the ticket has become to the Republican brand.

"In a purple swing state like Virginia, giving the party the benefit of an open primary process would be a very important lesson to learn," warned one national GOP strategist.

"Ideologically, the convention was too far to the right, and it also had the secondary impact of not allowing large blocks of the Republican Party establishment, especially the money class, to feel like they had a role in the process that a primary would have afforded. "

Christopher Newport University professor Quentin Kidd, whose poll released Friday showed McAuliffe with a seven point lead heading into Election Day, warned of further problems for the GOP after Tuesday.

"I think the Republican Party erupts into a civil war 30 minutes after the polls close," Kidd predicts.  "I think the Bolling-wing of the party would feel emboldened enough to say 'We told you so, you idiots. Why do you keep nominating these extremists who are out of step with Virginia?'"

This story was originally published on Sun Nov 3, 2013 8:00 PM EST