Recently, I sat down with Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell (R) to discuss his remarkable campaign to capture the governorship and end eight years of Democratic control of Richmond. I asked him, as well, about the challenges that confront him as Governor in these economically challenging times.
This was the first part of the Solutions Academy’s ongoing series about running for office.
What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our discussion. To hear the audio, go to www.AmericanSolutions.com
Newt Gingrich: You had such a remarkable race and ended up carrying Fairfax County for the first time in 12 years for a Republican. How did you reach out to voters, particularly independents?
Gov. Bob McDonnell: We decided early on that it was going to be all about the economy and jobs, given the state of the national and global economy. So we built our whole campaign around jobs because we knew it was the most pressing issue and it was the most important issue independent voters cared about. We knew they had the potential to determine the outcome of the election. They had gone strongly for Obama and we needed to win them back.
My first bumper sticker was “Bob’s for jobs.” It set the theme of the campaign and couched our message in positive and uplifting tones. We figured there was plenty of bad news in commercials and on TV and what people wanted was some encouragement that policies the government would put in place would give them a brighter future and a better tomorrow. That really was the overall strategy for the campaign.
NG: One of the things that was interesting to me was that the Washington Post desperately tried to get you off target with reports about your master’s thesis and how it was somehow showed you to be intolerant. How did you decide to handle that?
BM: We assumed that people were much more interested in their pocketbook issues than something I wrote 20 years ago. Nonetheless, we knew that the press and my opponent would continue to have a field day. What it did was give me an extraordinary opportunity for me to say, “Yes, I’m pro-life, I’m pro-family, I’m a social conservative and that’s the way I’ve voted in the past and that’s the way I’m going to govern. Now, let’s talk about jobs and the economy which is what people care about.”
We had to focus on the message discipline of talking about jobs and economy. We lost a little bit of steam for about three or four weeks. But once the issue ran its course, we rapidly distanced ourselves from our opponent down the stretch because we were exclusively talking about jobs, energy, economic opportunity – the bread and butter issues people were concerned about.
NG: One of the reasons I was inspired to put this interview together was that there is a lot of thinking that candidates this year can capitalize on the anger out there by being negative and stoking the anger. It struck me that you were actually trying to reach the voters in a positive way to focus their anger towards accomplishment. How would you describe what voters were telling you they wanted?
BM: We thought there was so much bad news, so much hyper-partisanship and so much rhetoric in Washington that voters wanted not only to focus on the economic issues but they wanted to hear something more visionary and uplifting about how we were going to create more jobs and opportunity for their kids and their grandkids so everyone would have a better shot at the American Dream.
Especially when we saw our opponents speaking in generalities and platitudes and attacking me early and often on social issues, we thought the right contrast was a very positive, uplifting message on jobs, energy, taxes and transportation that would give people a better view of what life was going to be like if they elected me as Governor. Most of the campaign was a positive economic message. And I really think in this environment people want to see that. They’re tired of just rampant partisanship based on who’s going to win. That doesn’t mean you capitulate one inch on your belief in limited government, but it means phrasing it in a way that can inspire people to their best instead of just tearing people down.
NG: What was your elevator pitch? If you could only see a voter once, what was the core message you tried to get across to him or her?
BM: Bob’s for jobs.
I figured if that’s all that people remembered on Election Day — that I was the guy who was going to help create jobs – then I win. I said, look, the free enterprise system is the best way to deliver economic opportunities for everybody. What the federal government is doing with more taxes and regulation and bailouts and spending is not going to help us. If you elect me my core focus is going to be on creating more jobs and economic opportunity that is going to help give you and your kids a better shot at a brighter future. And here’s how we’re going to do it. We’re going to promote small business. We’re going to make Virginia the energy capital of the East Coast. We’re going to provide more opportunity for kids to get into college at more affordable tuition rates. We’re going to make our roads a little bit better so you can get to work faster. Every issue area that we talked about returned to jobs and economic development.
Here’s the key: People know in their personal lives that when the economy is down they have to cut spending, that they have to make tougher choices. So when a candidate starts talking about why government needs to do the same thing, — spend less, tax less and regulate less — the voter’s already there because they’re doing it in their personal lives. That’s why I think our message was well received by those independent voters because they could relate to it very well.
NG: One of the things that was most impressive about your message effort was that you reached a lot of different ethnic groups. There are a lot of different Asian groups in Northern Virginia, Koreans and Vietnamese as well as Salvadorans and significant other Latino groups. How did you see the process of reaching out to groups that don’t historically identify with Republicans?
BM: First, I realized just looking at the demographics and long-term projections of increasing diversity in Virginia and America that if we conservatives and Republicans don’t do a better job with outreach to minorities and New Americans we are going to be a permanent minority party.
Number two, increasingly, especially in Northern Virginia, in a close election more turnout and converting more folks in the Asian and Hispanic communities to my cause could be pivotal to the race. We started a year out building coalitions and identifying key leaders in the Chinese, Filipino, Hispanic communities — even the Cambodian and Pakistani communities — and I just started being present. I really felt that the issue of job creation and economic development is one that transcends nationality and ethnic origin. No matter how they voted in the past, if I was there early and often talking about the issues, it would help. Particularly in the Asian community where you have so many small business people and entrepreneurs who are very much in sync with the Republican ideas of limited government and free enterprise.
The other thing we did that was very practical was that we translated bumper stickers into about 12 different languages, into Tagalog, Spanish and Chinese. We had big banners that had our message in those languages. We also got Congressman Cao to come campaign with me and that helped create a bond with the Vietnamese community and we did very well in that community.
NG: Two of the key steps in broadening your appeal and convincing people you were different were getting Black Entertainment Television (BET) Co-Founder Sheila Johnson to do an ad and have former Virginia Governor Doug Wilder decide to be neutral. Were there any keys to that relationship building process?
BM: I think again it was me not just assuming that they were going to be on the other side.
Doug Wilder had shown an independent streak in the past. And Sheila Johnson was first and foremost a very accomplished businessperson. She has a strong belief in free enterprise, and her entrepreneurial spirit in creating BET was what made her successful. So I thought, I bet she’s not very happy about some of these anti-free enterprise policies coming out of Washington.
So I went to see her during the primary while the Democrats were still fighting it out and said, “Listen, this is what I believe about business and free enterprise and I think you ought to give me a shot. I know you’ve been on the other side most of your career but I really think you should give me a fair chance.” We hit it off personally at the beginning and I kept calling her and finally she decided after the primary was over that she was concerned with Washington policies on business and I was the best guy in business. So she was able to make that very courageous leap from her traditional Democratic Party support. We had a lot of discussion about how that was going to be tough for her and how we were going to work hard to vindicate her courage and her choice.
Never assume that just because somebody has a long-term record of supporting the Democrats that there aren’t issues more important than political affiliation. Right now, people who are leaders in the business community are really concerned about overly intrusive federal policies. They’re concerned about the movement of the Democratic Party to more taxes, more regulation, more litigation and more unionization. I think even a conservative, pro-business Republican making a pitch to a long-term Democrat on these free enterprise issues has a shot in this environment.
NG: You seemed to do well in picking up additional legislative seats. Did you actively work across the entire ticket to elect candidates in local races?
BM: I believe your predecessor Tip O’Neil had a good point when he said all politics is local. Even though I was campaigning statewide, when it came down to mobilizing grassroots workers to come to the polls, these people were going to be working with local candidates. The closer that that local candidate and I could work together and have a common theme of economic development, energy, education, taxes and regulation, the better we were all going to be. That worked very well. We ended up picking up six seats in the House of Delegates to give us a 60-40 margin. I also knew it was going to be a lot easier for me to govern if I had a strong majority in the House of Delegates.
NG: You also used new media. What new technology do you think was particularly effective in your campaign?
BM: We decided to allocate a significant part of our campaign budget into new media. In part it was because we had watched the way the Obama campaign had done that. They devoted about 7 percent of their total advertising budget to online ads. More and more we see people getting their news online. So we spent about 8.5 percent of our budget on new media.
We also figured text messaging would be important so we hired the same vendor that did the Obama campaign in this part of the state. We used constant twitter messages. We were also very aggressive on Facebook. My daughter became our Facebook coordinator and youth outreach coordinator to all the college campuses. We ended up with about 35,000 friends on Facebook, about twice as many as our opponent.
NG: You did very well with younger voters, much better than Republicans have done in recent years. Beyond new technology, were there other things you thought were helpful?
BM: And again, not writing a group off was key. We spent time on college campuses. We assumed the reason that they voted overwhelmingly for President Obama was because of things he did that were unique to him, not that they bought into the Democratic philosophy. So if we could use the various new media, be present on the campuses and say, “Here’s how our ideas are going to land you a better job when you graduate with less debt” — we thought that was more important to them than whatever they thought about the president a year earlier.
NG: One of the things that is interesting to me is that there is a general pattern in believing that young people are disinclined to support anything religious or involving God in the public square. There was enormous effort to make you unacceptable in that sense. How did you talk about issues like faith in a way that enabled you to reach out to young people without having to back off one inch on what you believe?
BM: I assume that all the public polls about Americans’ spiritual beliefs are accurate. They show that about 93 percent of us say we believe in God and most of us believe to some degree that this is a relevant consideration in our daily lives. So for me to state that I was a person of faith and that guided my decision making and helped me to be more friendly and positive — I wasn’t at all embarrassed or ashamed to say that.
I think the problem we thought would occur is that people would demonize me like they have with other Republicans to create this image that if you are a person of faith and a conservative you must be part of this stereotypical hard-core religious right that is somehow intolerant, doesn’t care about people and isn’t open-minded about emerging trends in society. We found the best way to deal with that was to just be nice. You have to be nice, you have to build bridges, you have to invite people in and listen to people. Over time, even if the other side decides they’re going to try to put you in the that box, the more people see you the more they relate to you and say, “What I’m reading about that guy is not the person that I heard speak at the event. He seems different than that. He’s likable.”
At the end of the day, everyone that you’re trying to attract, Democrat or Republican, regardless of race or religion, they have a common trait that God has imprinted on everybody and that is the desire to be loved, to be appreciated and to be cared for. That’s what we want to see in our political figures. We want to know that they have some genuine concern about us and our issues. Just being nice, being positive and being upbeat is something that we need to do more.
Part of the Democratic strategy is always to try to make us look mean-spirited or to say that we are the party of no, that we are just interested in obstructing this intellectually stimulating progressive agenda. It’s not fair, it’s not right and it’s not accurate but it is effective. The best way to combat it is to not shrink one iota from your religious beliefs but to show why those beliefs turn you into someone who is caring, who is positive and who wants to reach out.
NG: Every campaign has down days. What sustained you when you were exhausted, angry, frustrated or just plain worn out?
BM: First, before you decide to run for office you have to know why you’re doing it. What is the good you hope to do? You’ve got to run to do things and get results, not to be somebody or have a fancy business card or see your name in the headlines. Every candidate needs to have a soul searching and heart-to-heart conversation with their family and their best friends and their advisors to make sure they’re in it for the right reasons. Because if you’re not, in those tough days when the media is beating up on you or you didn’t raise as much money as you’d hoped or you didn’t do as well in the debate as you’d like, you’ve got to resort to the fact that you are in this because you have a mission for public service to enact conservative, limited government. That’s what sustains you. If you’re not grounded from the beginning, it can be a very rocky and tough campaign.
NG: What kind of advice do you have to get your message across in hostile media interviews and talk shows?
BM: Never let them see you sweat. Keep smiling. During the most rocky days of my campaign when we were dealing with attacks on the thesis and on social issues, they were expecting that a withering assault would get us to be defensive and mean spirited or elusive and we didn’t do that at all. I had great advisors who encouraged me that this is what I believe in. I’m a pro-gun, pro-life, pro-family, pro-property rights, pro-free enterprise person. Stick with it and then talk about jobs and the economy. And do it with a smile. So no matter how tough the question were, I would try the best I could to smile my way through it so the people who were watching on TV would see you smile through even a withering question. That helped create a tone for us that no matter how hard the other side tried to put us in that stereotype box, we were going to be positive and friendly and results-oriented.
NG: You’re now faced with the objective reality of trying to deal with the fiscal problems that the economy and the growth of government have brought. What principles do you rely on to explain to people the fiscal reality Virginia faces?
BM: There is an innate sense among most Americans that you can’t spend what you don’t have. Every small business person understands that when times get tough, your first strategy can’t be to go to your customers and ask for a pay raise or a price increase. You have to find ways to cut your costs of operations. That’s what families do, that’s what businesses do.
I’m trying to relate to people on the same level they’re at in their personal lives or their business lives. And that means that government must live within its means. Massive new deficit spending that creates $100,000 per household national debt is not a good thing, that’s not going to help us be a prosperous and strong nation down the road. There is a sense for most Americans that that’s just common sense.
Secondly, given the fiscal realities most Americans face, they don’t want to pay more in new taxes. They expect government to work better. Most people believe that there’s always something government can do to be more efficient. There is also a sense that government is trying to do too much or they’re not spending money wisely. All these innate senses that people have weigh toward the conservative message of limited government and less spending.
I’m faced with a four billion dollar budget deficit. There are those on the left that want to increase taxes. I’ve already said that I will veto tax increases. So in the legislature they know there’s no point in putting together a budget with tax increases because they know it’s going to be vetoed. So now our discussion is what is the best way in the short run to cut expenses and what’s the best way in the long run to restructure government so that it’s more effective and we have less bureaucracy.
I hope you enjoyed this conversation with Governor McDonnell. In the future, we will bring you more interviews in the Solutions Academy with the leaders who are bringing real change to America.
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