As GOP leaders in Washington look to remake their national brand, they don't have to look far to find their first real challenge.
It's taming rogue Republicans right across the Potomac.
In the eyes of party strategists, Virginia's off-year elections represent a first opportunity to bounce back from the losses of 2012 - a chance to reset the political debate in a critical swing state, send off popular Gov. Bob McDonnell on a high note and deliver a national message about the direction of the Republican Party.
If only the Republican state legislature, local conservative leadership and de facto gubernatorial nominee could stick to the talking points. Instead, national Republicans fear the true believers in Richmond could shout down their fledgling message of prudence and moderation in a state that's easy prey for much of the political media.
The GOP-held state Senate rocked Old Dominion politics less than two weeks ago by passing a daring plan to redraw the legislative map, rushing the proposal through as a potentially decisive Democratic lawmaker was out of town for Inauguration Day. In the days since then, legislators again stirred national attention by flirting with - before ultimately discarding - a proposal to divvy up Virginia's Electoral College votes by congressional district, effectively rigging the state for the GOP.
All of that came as a highly unwelcome sequel to the 2012 uproar over a Virginia measure - championed by conservative state Del. Bob Marshall - mandating ultrasound procedures for women seeking abortions.
It was less than a year ago that Democrats seized on that issue as a national cause, using it to drive Virginia women away from the GOP ticket from Mitt Romney on down. Within Virginia, Republicans blame the ultrasound firestorm for undercutting McDonnell as a vice presidential contender and damaging Senate candidate George Allen, who ultimately lost to former governor Tim Kaine.
Now, the same legislative body that steered the 2012 GOP message off course has struggled to refocus on a winning agenda for 2013. The still-unresolved redistricting controversy, Republicans say, has been an unwanted distraction from McDonnell's ambitious proposals to overhaul education and transportation. The Virginia House of Delegates is expected to decide soon whether or not to take up the Senate's provocative new legislative map, with McDonnell's legacy and national profile once again at stake.
McDonnell's office declined to comment for this story. Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who has criticized the state GOP since withdrawing from the governor's race late last year, lamented what he called a relentlessly divisive atmosphere in the Virginia capital.
"I've been very disappointed that this session has taken on such a partisan tone. That's certainly not what we wanted or expected. We have some very big issues on the table this year like transportation funding and education reform, and we don't want to see those issues compromised because of partisan spats over redistricting or anything else," Bolling, who has toyed with an independent run for governor, told POLITICO. "Unfortunately, this is becoming more and more of a way of life in the Virginia General Assembly. Over the past several years, we've seen these types of partisan spats to a degree unlike anything we've historically seen in Virginia."
The stakes are far higher than in your garden-variety state legislative wrangling: Virginia has become one of the most important swing states in the country, a traditional GOP stronghold that now has two Democratic U.S. senators and voted twice for President Barack Obama.
A triumphant last year for McDonnell, capped by a victory for Republicans in the 2013 governor's race, could at least start the process of turning back that tide.
At the moment, it's an open question whether the GOP will have the discipline to pull that off. While polls show the 2013 governor's race is highly competitive, Republicans have felt distinctly anxious in recent weeks over a series of hard-right comments by state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a hero of national conservatives who has continued to speak out on issues such as contraception and the Affordable Care Act despite outside pressure to pivot toward the middle.
The party's greatest source of optimism in the race, strategists say, is that Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe is also a flawed candidate, saddled with baggage from his business career and background as a Democratic fundraiser and national party chair.
But Republicans are keenly aware that their political foes have perfected the art of hyping up clashes in Richmond and turning them to the GOP's disadvantage. The governor's office isn't the only prize on the ballot this year: the other statewide constitutional offices hang in the balance, as does the Republican super-majority in the legislature's lower chamber.
Virginia House of Delegates Speaker Bill Howell argued that despite the latest round of controversies, Republicans have done a "pretty good job" this year of downplaying culture-war battles like the ultrasound mandate. In private polling conducted for the GOP caucus, Howell said most voters believe Virginia's on the right track overall and are supportive of the leadership's priorities.
If there's been intense national attention to flare-ups like the redistricting battle, Howell said, that's just the way politics goes.
"That's always frustrating, but you know, I guess the comedy shows on late night can't find anything funny to write about K-12 education," Howell said, adding of the redistricting fight: "It would be easier if it weren't there, but it's there."
"It's not like people are unhappy with the direction Virginia's going in now," he said.
One national GOP strategist with Virginia ties acknowledged that "passing the redistricting bill without consulting [McDonnell] was counterproductive as far as getting transportation and education reform through" - but questioned whether there would be lingering implications for the fall statewide elections.
"I don't think any of that really impacts Cuccinelli going forward," the Republican said. "This is going to come down to whether or not Cuccinelli runs the kind of race he needs to win."
Democrats are determined to make that as difficult as possible for Cuccinelli, a hard-charging former state senator who became a national figure with multiple high-profile lawsuits against the federal government, including one challenging the constitutionality of Obama's health care reform law.
After the triumph of Democratic culture-war politics in the 2012 cycle, the party has actively worked to tie Cuccinelli to the legislature's least popular actions - even as the Republican has expressed disapproval of measures like the Electoral College scheme. The state party has blasted out hits on "The extreme Cuccinelli-Marshall agenda," referring to the state legislature who championed last year's ultrasound bill.
And the Republican candidate has continued to offer up fodder, dabbling in the federal contraception debate on national talk radio and writing a book-cum-ideological manifesto, "The Last Line of Defense," set for release in February.
Democratic state Sen. Ralph Northam, a candidate for lieutenant governor, said he expects his party to run on a message of "moderation and mediation," in contrast to the legislative roller coaster of the last two years.
"I do think [voters] are starting to take note, because it's kind of a recurrent theme now for the Republicans. You know, people expect us to come up here and take care of business, take care of the challenges that we deal with in the Commonwealth," Northam said. "It's going to be a theme for me. My reputation here in Richmond is to work with both sides of the aisle."
McAuliffe communications director Brennan Bilberry signaled that the Democratic nominee would effectively enlist the legislature in making the case that Cuccinelli's too much of a hardliner to serve as governor: "Cuccinelli's desire to impose his social agenda in Virginia is especially disturbing to voters who know that many Republicans in the legislature would happily help implement his extreme ideas."
The Cuccinelli camp, meanwhile, shrugs at the idea that the legislature could be a lingering liability for the attorney general or for any major Republican candidate. Republicans expect voters to cast their ballots based on a one-to-one contrast between the two major-party candidates. They're confident they can get the best of McAuliffe in that match-up.
If the legislature hasn't done much yet to strengthen the GOP's hand for the fall campaign, there's still time to work out deals on transportation funding and education reform. Whatever the fate of his agenda, McDonnell remains a popular governor who can be relied upon to work hard for his party's ticket.
Cuccinelli adviser Chris LaCivita dismissed the notion that even repeated cycles of legislative drama could have an impact on the overall climate for Republicans.
"You've got 140 members and everybody's got a better idea. That's the natural give-and-take in the legislature," LaCivita said. "Some people define that, or would call that, dysfunctional. Some people would say that's the definition of the word 'legislature.' "
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