RICHMOND — Virginia is conducting a political experiment in 2013, testing whether a Tea Party favorite can carry a closely divided state with conservative roots. If Ken Cuccinelli wins the race for governor, he will have undercut Republican moderates’ claims that hard-right ideologies are hurting the party — and undoubtedly intensify a debate already roiling the GOP.
Despite its Southern conservative history, Virginia is not Kansas or Oklahoma. President Obama carried it twice after years of Republican dominance, and both US senators are Democrats. Democrats and Republicans have battled fiercely for control of the state Legislature and governorship for years, with Republicans holding the edge lately.
It’s hard to find a more 50-50 state where moderate and independent voters loom large in fall general elections.
Cuccinelli, the fiery attorney general running for governor this year, is strikingly conservative. He once told college leaders they couldn’t ban anti-gay discrimination. He advised Catholic clergy to go to jail to protest federal contraceptive coverage mandates. He investigated a former Virginia scientist over his climate change research. All this gave Cuccinelli a national profile few attorneys general attain.
His in-your-face conservatism contrasts with the more measured style of successful Republicans in other toss-up states, including Pat McCrory, North Carolina’s first Republican governor in 20 years.
Some Virginia Republicans had hoped to thwart Cuccinelli’s nomination, fearing he’s too extreme. But a conservative takeover of the state party last summer ensured it.
A more moderate Republican recently decided against an independent candidacy, and GOP officials are rallying around Cuccinelli in his Nov. 5 showdown with Terry McAuliffe. The former national Democratic Party chairman and New York native was a major fund-raiser for Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Some GOP strategists nervously point to states where Republicans lost winnable elections in 2010 and 2012 after Tea Party-backed candidates wrested the nominations from moderates.
Most of those races were for the Senate, however. It’s hard to know if similar dynamics will play out in a gubernatorial race in an off-year election, when no federal candidates are on the ballot.
For now, Democrats are optimistic.
‘‘They must be saying, ‘Once more the Republicans have given us a gift,’ ’’ said Steve Jarding, a veteran Virginia Democratic strategist now teaching at Harvard University.
He said Virginia Republicans should view the intraparty tension ‘‘sort of like a cancer. You’ve got to remove it early or you risk killing the party.’’
Cuccinelli used a high-profile setting this month to acknowledge the political center. Addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference near Washington, he went relatively easy on the red-meat lines that conservatives eat up and used phrases seldom heard at the often bombastic annual convention.
He called for greater support for the mentally ill and for felons who may have been wrongly convicted. Virginia must ‘‘protect our most vulnerable citizens,’’ he said, ‘‘at every stage of life.’’ That seemed an indirect reference to opposing abortion, something he usually hits head-on.