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McDonnell, Republicans Sweep Virginia

5 years ago
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Bob McDonnell led a Republican sweep in Virginia on Tuesday night, ending -- at least for now -- talk that the Old Dominion was moving inexorably toward becoming a dependable "Blue State." Virginia voters had elected two Democratic senators and two Democratic governors in the last four statewide elections -- and went for Barack Obama in 2008 -- but one year later McDonnell inundated Democrat R. Creigh Deeds in the contest to choose the state's next governor.

Also cruising to victory were Republicans Bill Bolling and Ken Cuccinelli, candidates for lieutenant governor and attorney general, respectively. Bolling defeated Democrat Jody Wagner while Cuccinelli bested Stephen C. Shannon. With 99 percent of the vote counted, McDonnell had built a 59-41 percentage point lead, with Bolling and Cuccinelli winning by only slightly lesser margins.

"This is a great night for Republicans in Virginia," crowed Rep. Eric Cantor, the minority House whip and a member of the state's congressional delegation. "The people said enough to spending, enough to waste, enough to government overreach." Cantor, one of the first to trumpet the GOP talking point, said voters were clearly dissatisfied with the economy, adding, "Whose economy is it? It's Barack Obama's economy."

That remark may have been seasoned with a dash of partisanship, but there was no denying the truth of another Cantor observation, made from McDonnell's hotel in Richmond: "This is a stark contrast to what we saw a year ago."

In his victory speech, McDonnell was more humble. He neither mentioned Obama nor alluded to the president's policies. When he pledged fealty to the concept of a "wise and frugal government," McDonnell attributed that sentiment to a favorite Virginia son named Thomas Jefferson. "I am ready to go to work to serve you and to help lead Virginia for the next four years," McDonnell added. "One of the reasons we were so successful is we had independents and Democrats come over to our side. For those of you who did not support me, I say, 'give me a chance to earn your trust."'

For his part, Deeds conceded early in the evening in a statement that was equal parts bravado and realism. "Just because we didn't get the right result tonight, doesn't mean we get to go home and whine," he told disappointed supporters. "We've got to keep working and keep fighting -- and I'm fighting." Virginia Democrats were left to wonder whether they nominated the right guy -- or whether any Democrat could have beaten Bob McDonnell this year.

Republican candidates nationwide will now be looking to the McDonnell campaign for tips on how one revives, in the new buzzword in politics, the GOP "brand." They will note that the nominee is a good-looking and charismatic candidate who never seemed to make even the slightest verbal gaffe. They will notice that McDonnell offset this semantic caution with enough concrete proposals to improve the state's fiscal outlook -- but without raising taxes -- that made it hard to dismiss him as an empty suit. (Sample idea: privatize the state's liquor stores).

Republicans will chew on the fact that McDonnell kept his distance from Sarah Palin, ran advertisements in Democratic counties that mentioned his bipartisanship, but not his political party, and that he actively courted the state's growing Asian community while successfully wooing high-profile African-American supporters.

McDonnell also withstood a barrage of withering personal attacks from Deeds, most of them centering on two themes: his political proximity to televangelist Pat Robertson and a master's thesis McDonnell wrote while attending a Robertson-founded college two decades ago in which the future attorney general expressed archaic notions of sexuality and seemed to question the utility to society of women in the workplace. McDonnell's lead in the polls initially declined in the face of this onslaught, but he righted his campaign by simultaneously answering Deeds' attacks without letting his message be completely hijacked.

His answer was, essentially, that 20 years is a long time and that he wouldn't use the same kind of language today that he used in his thesis. He added that his daughter was a military officer who oversaw two dozen (male) soldiers in Iraq, which made him quite proud. But McDonnell did not disavow Robertson. Nor did he deviate one iota on Republican orthodoxy on taxes, even while stressing his record of working with Democrats in Richmond.

Deeds had entered the last days of the campaign trying to recreate the Democrats' 2008 magic -- specifically hoping for a jump-start in the form of President Obama, who campaigned for him and who was the featured star of last-minute Deeds ads.

A state senator from a central Virginia district stretching from the college town of Charlottesville to the Virginia border, Deeds won the gubernatorial nomination in a primary that included spirited challenges from Brian Moran, a former state legislator from Northern Virginia, and Terry McAuliffe, a prominent Clinton fundraiser and former Democratic National Committee chairman.

Deeds was endorsed strongly by The Washington Post and earned a surprisingly easy victory in the primary on the strength of a tactical decision by liberal Democrats and party activists attracted less by Deeds' low-key personality or his centrist legislative record than by their conviction that he was the strongest general election candidate against McDonnell.

When the general election campaign began, Deeds campaigned as though he believed he had a strong wind at this back. A popular president was in the White House and he faced an opponent he'd run against four years earlier in a race that ended in a virtual dead heat. In addition, Gov. Tim Kaine was running the Democratic National Committee, and Deeds' state has recently been trending toward his party after years of being reliably Republican.

All those perceived advantages proved illusionary.

First of all, Virginia's "presidential jinx" makes it tough for the gubernatorial candidate of the president's party, no matter how popular the president is with the American people -- or even Virginians, for that matter. A governor from the president's party hasn't won since 1977.

Second, yes it is true that Deeds had run against McDonnell four years ago, and come within 323 votes out of 2 million cast. But it was also true that McDonnell was the victor, and the job he won in that razor-thin contest was attorney general, a traditional stepping stone in Virginia politics, while Deeds headed back to the relative anonymity of the state Senate.

Third, the presence of Kaine at the DNC may have been a handicap, not an advantage. Yes, Kaine steered money Deeds' way, but any party chief would have done the same. And though no coherent explanation has emerged for why this was the case, Kaine and Deeds seem from the outside to have been commandeered by the DNC instead of the other way around. Deeds not only ran a relentlessly negative campaign, but in Northern Virginia it was also a traditionally liberal one that would have made more sense in California or New York. The Northern Virginia suburbs are more liberal than the rest of the state, true, but it's hard to compartmentalize a campaign in that fashion these days.

Finally, an honest evaluation of Virginia's recent statewide elections simply does not lead to the conclusion that the state is a reliably Democratic "Blue State" -- any more than it is Republican. Color Virginia purple.

McDonnell, more than Deeds, seemed to understand this, aiming his message at independents, knowing he could count on the monolithic support of the GOP's conservative base. This is the high ground in political positioning. And McDonnell was able to hold onto it by maintaining control of his message even while rebuffing attacks. Those who have managed this difficult feat include Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

This is not to say that McDonnell is obvious presidential material, although it is to say that national Republicans could learn a thing or two by watching him campaign. Now, however, as the current occupant of the Oval Office could tell Bob McDonnell, comes the hard part. Now he has to master the art of governing.

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