It turns out the defeat of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney was also a loss for Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, his hand-picked successor.

McDonnell was at the top of the list to serve as attorney general in a Mitt Romney administration, The Washington Examiner has learned, meaning Bolling would have taken over for McDonnell. That would have allowed Bolling to run for governor in 2013 as an incumbent against Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.

"This is the biggest of all what-might-have-beens," said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington. "It would have upset the applecart if Bolling was governor at the time of the nomination process. So Romney's defeat is bad news for the governor and bad news for the lieutenant governor, but it may be good news for Cuccinelli."

McDonnell was vetted by the Romney campaign for the vice presidential nominee but ultimately lost out to Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan. Romney's selection team then penciled in McDonnell for attorney general, according to a Republican campaign official close to the process.

"He was a serious contender for VP, and as soon as he didn't get the nod, the comment was made he'd make a heck of an attorney general," the source told The Washington Examiner.

Another senior Virginia Republican would not "comment on any private conversations" but said, "his background was a perfect fit, and that was widely noted in public and private."

McDonnell's office would not speculate on a hypothetical Romney Cabinet.

McDonnell served as Virginia's attorney general from 2006 to 2009 and was a state prosecutor in Virginia Beach. Following Romney's failed bid to unseat President Obama, McDonnell will likely remain Virginia's governor until his term ends in January 2014.

If McDonnell would have left his office, Bolling would have stepped into the job. Bolling, in an already spirited race against Cuccinelli to succeed McDonnell, would have benefited from the exposure. A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday showed more than half of Virginians have an opinion of Cuccinelli, while 7 in 10 have no opinion of Bolling.

Republicans will decide their nominee in a convention next year. The poll showed potential Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe would have a tight race against both Bolling and Cuccinelli.

Bolling, who served as Romney's Virginia campaign chairman, would not discuss a potential Romney administration but said his time as second in command has prepared him for the top job.

"When you're lieutenant governor, you always have to be ready to assume the office should the need arise," Bolling said. "For the last three years because I've worked so closely with Gov. McDonnell, I've always felt comfortable assuming the duties, but it's not something I ever talked with Gov. Romney about."