Why McDonnell Won in Virginia

RICHMOND — Last year, Barack Obama’s victory in the presidential race lifted Democratic spirits to an all-time high in contemporary Virginia politics. It was the latest in a series of election day success stories that left some eager to suggest The Commonwealth was developing a blue hue.

But last night, things changed after Republicans Robert F. McDonnell, the former attorney general, won a decisive victory in the Virginia governor’s race, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling won re-election and Ken Cuccinelli became the state’s next attorney general.

“Eight months ago I applied for the job of governor of Virginia and tonight you have hired me,” McDonnell, 55, told the feverish crowd packed into the massive ballroom inside the Marriott hotel in downtown Richmond.

“My promise to you as governor is the same as my promise to you as candidate for governor. That is to strengthen our free enterprise system, to create more jobs and opportunity so that every Virginian can use their God given talent to pursue the American dream and liberty in this great Commonwealth.”

He vowed to honor the words of Thomas Jefferson to keep taxes, regulation, litigation and spending to a minimum. And he pledged to follow the words of George Washington to “honor the eternal rule of order and right by protecting life, and liberty, and property and the pursuit of happiness here in Virginia.”

The Republican sweep reestablished the GOP brand in The Old Dominion and showed that talk of Virginia’s turning blue was very premature. The victories also fit neatly into the Republican narrative that casts this election as a referendum on the liberal policies being pushed by Democrats on the other side of the Potomac — an assumption the White House rejects.

“When we are a party of issues and ideas we do well because our ideas are better than the other side,” Bolling told Human Events. “When we talk about the ideas we believe in, and the values we believe in, and relate them to the issues that families and businesses care about, we win.”

He added, “I think we have positioned our party well for the future …. I don’t think that is the end of what we are going to accomplish. I think it is the beginning of what we are going to accomplish as we go about redefining our party and presenting it to the people of Virginia.”

Last night, Republicans attributed much of McDonnell’s success to his ability to stay focused on “innovate ideas” tied to jobs, the economy and transportation, while sidestepping Democratic attacks that casted him as a social extremist based on a thesis he authored as a 34-year-old graduate student at Pat Robertson’s law school, Regent University.

McDonnell repeated this message yesterday morning after he voted, telling reporters he hoped to “focus on jobs, and the economy, and transportation, and education and energy and just create new sense of optimism that we can have better days in Virginia.”

Frank B. Atkinson, who served in the Reagan administration and worked for former Gov. George Allen, told Human Events that that consistent message — along with the ability to propose ideas tied to conservative tenets — helped McDonnell reassemble the center-right, conservative-moderate, coalition that helped propel Republicans to victory in previous statewide elections.

That message, Atkinson believes, also resonated with independents and some Democrats — most notably Sheila Johnson, the co-founder of Black Entertainment Television. Johnson had chaired Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine’s inaugural committee, but swung McDonnell’s way because of her belief he was the better choice to spur the economy.

“Clearly people are concerned about the economy and jobs,” Atkinson said. “If there is something else they are primarily concerned about it is spending and taxes and the impact of those on jobs and family financial security. Bob’s campaign really zeroed in on those issues from the beginning and never let up.”

Republican National Committee Chair Michael S. Steele agreed, saying McDonnell translated his conservative principles “into the 21st century to address transportation, to address health care, to address jobs. It worked. The voters trusted it.”

Nine months ago, scenario last night was hard to envision. Democrats controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress. In addition, Gov. Kaine, who had endorsed Obama early in his presidential bid, was later named chairman of the Democratic National Committee, guaranteeing that the party’s candidate for governor would have deep pockets come election day.

The mood was so bad that McDonnell’s longtime friend, Sen. Ken Stolle of Virginia Beach, advised him to sit out the race because “things looked so bad for Republicans.”

“I would hate to see him use his candidacy on an election he cannot win,” Stolle told HUMAN EVENTS last week. “I figured Obama would be on his honeymoon a lot longer than he was.”

Now Stolle and Virginia Republicans are convinced they are benefiting from voters’ growing unease with the policies being pushed by the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress, from health care to the stimulus package to the war in Afghanistan.

“The political atmosphere is 360 degrees different,” Bolling said, alluding to Obama’s dipping poll numbers, President’s Bush absence and what he heard from voters over the course of the campaign. “That certainly created a fertile field for us to reassert the values of our party and I think we were able to do that effectively throughout the campaign.”

Former Virginia Sen. George Allen told Human Events that much like his successful bid for governor in 1993 when President Clinton resided over The White House, McDonnell successfully melded the Washington-related worries into his campaign message.

“We were able to channel all of that either anger or dismay or disgust with what was going on in Washington into our campaign,” Allen said. “Bob has done the same thing. This year people are concerned about spending, and dangerous debt coming in Washington. They are very much concerned about cap-and-trade, which is a job killer …. They want the government to keep their hands of their health care.” Allen also said McDonnell was right to oppose the labor-backed “card-check” push on Capitol Hill – an important issue given Virginia’s status as a right-to-word state.

“Bob took a very clear stand against all that in Washington and his opponent took at best a dodging, unclear stand,” Allen said. “So, Bob not only got the united, hungry, Republicans, but also a substantial majority of independents.”

Atkinson also suggested something else might have been on Republicans side this year — history.

“There is a trend going back to the 1970s that the party that wins the White House loses the next years governor’s race,” he said. “It is a cottage industry trying to understand what the causes of that are, but, generally I think a couple of main causes are  that independent voters….want to see some sort of check on power. The Virginia governor’s race behaves much life midterm elections where the president’s party tends to lose ground.”