High Stakes Gov. Race

No one within the Obama White House is sharing inside information with me, of course, but I think it’s a pretty good wager to say that Rahm Emmanuel, Robert Gibbs, and the rest of “Team Obama” are going to make a strong effort to ensure that a Democrat is elected governor of Virginia this year.

Along with New Jersey, Virginia is one of only two states which will elect governors in ’09. These are the races of the year, the biggest games in town for both political parties as well as the punditocracy. It’s a high-stakes run that Bob McDonnell — until recently Virginia’s Attorney General — can win.

In recent years, Virginians have elected with regularity a governor from the party that is out of the White House. In fact, one would have to go back to 1973, when Richard Nixon was President and former Democratic Gov. Mills Godwin won the statehouse in Richmond as a Republican, to find the last time Virginia elected a governor from the same party as the President. (My fellow political historian, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, will I’m sure love to share this factoid with the White House press corps on the morning of November 4th if the eventual Democratic nominee wins the Virginia governorship the day before.)

And, of course, the national Democratic priority placed on winning the statehouse in the Old Dominion is enhanced by the Democratic National Chairman: Tim Kaine, the current governor of Virginia who must by law step down this year after one term.

So if you were wondering why certain Republican nominee Bob McDonnell was featured on Page One of the Washington Post on Wednesday (March 4th) suggesting he is toning down his conservatism and his announcement was “remarkable for what went unsaid,” you may now have a clue.

The election of Bob McDonnell as Virginia’s first Republican governor might topple Democratic plans for 2010 and beyond, and would change the political landscape significantly. Which is why the Washington Post wants to make Republican candidate McDonnell out to be a wild-eyed conservative radical and religious kook.

The only problem with that characterization — which runs throughout the Post piece, is that it’s just not true.

As a legislator, McDonnell was a serious and thoughtful lawmaker who was in the forefront of some landmark legislation. For example, he was the quarterback for Gov. Allen’s “tough love” welfare reform legislation in the 1990’s. The measure passed the General Assembly, was signed into law by Allen, and helped shrink the Old Dominion’s welfare rolls dramatically.

For all the jabs in the Post article that McDonnell was a “social conservative” and “from the extreme wing of the Republican Party,” the hard truth is that he would not have risen to leadership positions he held in his fourteen years in the state House of Delegates if he were a radical of any stripe.

And while McDonnell makes no bones about his right-to-life position, he was better known for his stand on law enforcement and taxes. McDonnell, in fact, voted over fifty times to cut taxes and this led to $2 billion in tax cuts.

Even the Post’s portrait of McDonnell as extreme and divisive is undercut n their own story by the comment from Democratic Gov. Kaine that he and the Republican lawmaker had a “good working relationship.”

The former prosecutor, state legislator, retired U.S. Army officer and top law enforcement official did not even attempt a point-by-point rebuttal to the Post claim that “GOP Nominee for Governor Goes Centrist.” Rather, he noted that “Virginia is still a right-of-center state” and that it was important to motivate one’s base “by sticking to principles.”

Few, if any, question McDonnell’s conservative credentials. He has long campaigned with the endorsement of the National Rifle Association, sports a strong anti-tax record and in fact opposes an increase in the state cigarette tax (“Since we just got Altria to relocate here, why do we hit them when the federal cigarette tax just went up 64 cents per pack?”), and was rated 100% by Virginia Right to Life while in the state legislature.

As to how Democrats won the last two races for governor, both Senate seats, and put Virginia’s electoral votes in their presidential candidate’s column last fall for the first time since 1964, McDonnell calmly pointed out that “we had a President who wasn’t very popular and two wars that were very unpopular. Then we had the financial meltdown last fall.”

The challenge to Republicans this year, he told me, was “to motivate their base and win the 25% or so of voters who are independent and want to know how you fix problems and get results.”

On the latter point, McDonnell proceeded to offer fresh ideas that, while definitely in the category of problem-solving, are in no way an abandonment of the conservative principles he referred to: more privatization to solve Virginia’s transportation problems, more local control of public education and encouragement of merit pay for teachers and charter schools, and cost-cutting at the statewide level to avoid any tax increase.

Where McDonnell stays focused on innovative conservatism, he also questions whether the three Democratic hopefuls (who compete in a primary June 9th) will be able to sell themselves as “centrist” in the mold of Kaine and Sen. Mark Warner. “Cardcheck,” the controversial union-backed measure that would end the secret ballot in union elections, is something that the Obama White House and Democratic leaders in Congress want badly — and that the three gubernatorial hopefuls will almost surely have to weigh in on. In a right-to-work state, observed McDonnell, “that can’t help them too much.”

As he does on the stump, Bob McDonnell conveys a soft-spoken, relaxed style in which he makes his case for economic as well as cultural conservative issues. Although the Post referred to his record of supporting what it considered “divisive issues,” it is difficult to see the Republican hopeful in that mold. But style notwithstanding, he is the conservative he has always been — and in ’09, that may be enough to win one of two “races of the year.”

According to a just-completed Rasmussen Reports poll, the 54-year-old McDonnell leads all of the Democratic hopefuls among likely voters: he defeats former state legislator Creigh Deeds (whom he defeated for attorney general in ’05) 39% to 30%; he edges former state legislator Brian Moran, brother of Rep. Jim Moran, by 39% to 36%, and he handily beats former Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe by a margin of 42% to 35%.

To be sure, some of McDonnell’s success so far is due to the fact that he wrapped up the nomination for governor more than a year ago. Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling, the only other Republican in statewide office, announced he would seek re-election rather than run for the top job. Former Sen. George Allen, an extremely popular governor from 1993-97, announced he would not attempt a run for the job he clearly loved.

“We always set out to get support from key leaders in the conservative grass-roots, and we did,” McDonnell told me, “And I give Lieutenant Governor Bolling a lot of credit for supporting me. And hard work and divine providence should also get credit.”