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Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and NRA President David Keane at CPAC 2012.

Is the Old Dominion ground zero in the battle for the soul of the Republican Party? If recent events are any indication, the answer is yes. Tensions between pro-business moderates — who actually believe working with President Obama could be a good thing — and the ideologically rigid and reflexively anti-Obama Tea Party conservatives reached a boiling point in recent days.

Virginia’s heavy reliance on the federal government and defense industry is one reason why Republicans such as Governor Bob McDonnell and Rep. Scott Rigell came out publicly against the sequester. Today, President Obama joined Rigell at Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc. shipyard in Newport News  — the largest manufacturing employer in the state — to denounce the sequester and the harmful military cuts that would come to Rigell’s district. The White House said 90,000 civilian Defense Department employees in Virginia would be furloughed and shipbulding plans would be delayed or canceled. Rigell said he favors Obama’s balanced approach of new tax revenues in addition to spending cuts, joining Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) in calling for new revenue as part of a larger deficit-reduction package.

“We need to grow our economy and raise revenues that way,” Rigell said. “I also believe that revenue has to come up a bit, first by growing the economy, but also by tax reform, which also includes eliminating lobbyist-inspired, lobbyist-written loopholes. I am in favor of that.”

Obama gave credit to Rigell for attending the event, saying being with him “is not always healthy for a Republican.”

By agreeing with and even getting up on the same stage as the president, as Rigell did today, both he and McDonnell will be blasted as RINOS (Republicans in Name Only) by the right-wing leaders of the GOP. RedState editor and Fox News contributor Erick Erickson ripped McDonnell, writing that he “is an unprincipled fake conservative whose promises are without value, an exemplar of the kind of big government, pro-tax Republican who ruined the party’s stature with fiscal conservatives.”

And that takes us to the GOP’s likely gubernatorial candidate and Tea Party poster boy — controversial attorney general Ken Cuccinelli. The opponent of probable Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe has spent his time in office crusading against health care reform, regulating greenhouse gas emissions, college campuses protecting gay students and many other extremist actions well to the right of the mainstream. Some Republican donors are getting nervous about Cuccinelli. According to Politicotwo wealthy business donors ripped Cuccinelli as too extreme and said the business community won’t support him as a candidate. One attendee said Cuccinelli  “was angry and hostile” after being slammed by the two donors.

Virginia is full of contradictions and the demographics are changing rapidly. The Commonwealth is home to the NRA and Christian Coalition, but also home to world-class public universities and an affluent population in Northern Virginia who work for the federal government or federal contractors, and take it personally when Republicans constantly demonize government. And a growing immigrant population helped turn Virginia Obama-blue in the past two presidential elections, along with electing two Democratic senators to Congress in Tim Kaine and Mark Warner.

The state that saw some of the fiercest fighting during the Civil War is now the battleground for the future of the Republican Party.

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore via Flickr 

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