The Magazine

Painting Virginia Red

Anatomy of a GOP victory.

Nov 16, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 09 • By JENNIFER RUBIN
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The lopsided 59-41 win suggests the tax issue remains potent. McDonnell explains, "When people are going through tough economic times, they expect government to work better." Stressing that voters want "more effective and innovative" government, he continues, "They expect us to cut and reorganize and not raise taxes." He warns that with the Bush tax cuts set to expire in 2011 voters nationwide will focus on the potential for "hundreds of billions" in higher taxes.

In addition to McDonnell's victory in Virginia, Republicans captured the two other statewide races--for lieutenant governor and attorney general--by 13 and 15 point margins respectively. They picked up six House of Delegate seats--in Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads, and Southwest Virginia. With momentum and newly engaged voters, they are now eyeing at least four seats. (Tom Perriello, who voted for cap and trade, tops the list.) If nothing else, McDonnell will provide a "fundraising bonanza," as one Republican insider observes.

At one level, it was a race between a hapless candidate and a polished one. The University of Virginia's Larry J. Sabato observes, "Everyone agrees Creigh Deeds has a significant charisma deficit. McDonnell is as smooth as silk and very articulate, by contrast." And McDonnell assembled a polished team of aides. McDonnell is quick to credit "the ground game" as "the best I have seen." Campaign chairman Ed Gillespie calls McDonnell "the best candidate since George Allen 1.0, in 1993." As a McDonnell adviser remarks, "He competed in Northern Virginia. The notion we can write off Northern Virginia is crazy. We don't have to win Fairfax County, but we don't have to give up 60,000 votes."

The race also demonstrates the ongoing appeal of fiscal conservatism, when well articulated. McDonnell says, "Overwhelmingly what I hear about [from voters] is that issues mattered." Gillespie says that McDonnell did what national Republicans don't do enough:

"We say we are for lower taxes. Vote for us, damn it! Figure it out! Bob explains he is for lower taxes because he wants to encourage more businesses and jobs. He is for charter schools because it makes all schools better. He is for offshore drilling because it can help plug the revenue hole and generate high-paying jobs. He spent a lot of time talking to independent voters about what is in it for them."

In contrast to McDonnell's approach, Deeds's failure to spell out detailed policies proved disastrous. A former Republican state senator observes that after Obama's candidacy, "voters are wary of people who run for office when they don't fill in the blanks."

Despite White House efforts to distance Obama from the results, there is an unmistakable message for Beltway Democrats. Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, who heads the Republican Governors' Association, agreed McDonnell was "greatly assisted by what's going on in D.C." While McDonnell talked "about what's on people's minds--which is job creation," Barbour observed, "people don't understand why they have spent the last few months talking about health care [reform]," which will drive up costs and squeeze employers.

Gillespie remarks on the shift since December 2008: "The environment changed substantially in the course of those ten months, especially with independent voters, because of what was going on in Washington, D.C." It is certainly the case, as David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report explains, that McDonnell's success is "a reflection of a national environment." A victory of this magnitude, he says, demonstrates not just a change in the electorate but a "change in opinion." After less than a year of Obama and a Democratic Congress, taxes and spending have particular resonance. Wasserman emphasizes, "Voters are wary of too much government spending."

Democrats didn't simply lose three statewide races. Republicans' victories were far flung, from the third district in the heart of coal country--where incumbent Dan Bowling lost by 15 points to a 25-year-old businessman, Will Morefield, who talked incessantly of the damage national Democrats' energy policies would do to coal--to Lynchburg, where Liberty University students turned out en masse to toss the incumbent Democrat Shannon Valentine, to upscale McLean where veteran Republican operative Barbara Comstock aggressively tied the incumbent to Deeds's tax hike position. Attorney general-elect Ken Cuccinelli cheerfully told THE WEEKLY STANDARD, "We are going to have Republicans inside the Beltway."