Republicans' 2008 election losses have spawned a spate of self-reflection. Was it just President Bush and the economy? Was it too much religion or ineffective candidates? Was opposition to immigration reform the death knell with minorities, or did Republicans fail to explain tried and true conservative principles? The theoretical argument rages among media elites and Beltway insiders, but the impact of Republicans' declining fortunes is more vivid--and the test of their ability to battle back more concrete--just a few miles south of Washington D.C. in the suburbs of Northern Virginia.

Tom Davis spent 14 years on Fairfax County's board of supervisors and then 14 more in Congress. He hasn't had many leisurely Saturday mornings in the last few decades, with all the civic events and campaign mixers to attend. But on a rainy Saturday, he and his wife, Jeannemarie Devolites Davis, were relaxing in their living room, their two small white dogs scampering about. They are both officially retired (albeit not entirely voluntarily and perhaps not permanently) from politics--she after failing to be reelected to her Virginia state senate seat in 2007 and he after retirement from the House last year.

It is not clear whether Davis is talking personally when he explains that in the George W. Bush era, Virginia Republicans were often "just collateral damage." The only way for voters to vote against Bush in midterm elections was to vote against Republicans in House, Senate, and state races. "It's our own fault. The party branding is what killed us."

The Davises' departure from politics, both replaced by Democrats, is symptomatic of the declining fortunes of the Republican party in Virginia. Less than a decade ago, Virginia had a Republican governor, two Republican senators, a majority Republican congressional delegation, and Republican control in both houses of the state legislature. Virginians voted Republican in every presidential election from 1964 to 2004. Now, only five of eleven House seats are held by Republicans, while both Senate seats, the governorship, and the state senate are in Democratic hands. Barack Obama carried Virginia 53-46 percent in November.

Davis reels off the list of reasons for the GOP's decline in Virginia, and across the country: "A very unpopular war fueled the left," an unpopular president, and a huge money disparity (four to one in favor of the Democrats in Virginia, he says). An influx of minorities and urban professionals into Virginia was another problem because the Republican "message doesn't address or invite the newcomers." "Democrats have the ball," he says. "Republicans have to hope they fumble. But we're not ready to pounce on the fumble." Republicans, he contends, are in danger of approaching Whig status, "talking about issues less and less relevant" to the average voter.

Although Davis is blunt about the state party (a "closed shop," he says, which doesn't promote viable candidates), he is not down on its prospects. Given the economy and the spending disadvantage in Virginia in 2008, he says, "It should have been a lot worse given the atmospherics. There is a lot of hope there." He says simply, "We have to decide if we want to be a winning coalition." Republicans have continued their hold on rural and religious voters in the southern and western portions of the state, but have fallen on hard times in the affluent (and more liberal) suburbs of Northern Virginia. They have had trouble nominating candidates that can appeal in both parts of the state. As more liberal voters flooded into Virginia over the last decade, the electoral math just grew more challenging for Republicans.

Larry J. Sabato, veteran political observer at the University of Virginia, sees the GOP's predicament in similar terms:

It's the combination of Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads, college communities, black rural counties, and highly educated populations in old and new suburbs that is proving lethal to the GOP in Virginia. This is the 53 percent majority for Obama we saw on Election Day. This majority is growing rather than declining with time. The various constituent parts of this majority coalition have discovered one another, and they appear pleased with the alliance. The outsiders for so much of Virginia's history have become the insiders, and they like it.

The danger is that the damage may persist, Sabato explains. "The new voters, first-time voters, and young voters may be lost to the GOP for a lifetime. In American history a party identification acquired early and forcefully can last a lifetime."

New Virginia voters have tipped the balance to the Democrats. (Although Virginia voters don't register by party, Republicans' 39-35 percent advantage in 2004 exit polling plummeted to a 33-39 percent deficit in 2008.) For several elections, Democrats have been running up increasingly large margins in voter-rich Fairfax County, but the real 2008 story, says the Cook Political Report's David Wasserman, was in the Tidewater and Richmond regions where Democrats' turnout soared, and Obama won by healthy margins.

Obama's success in Loudoun, Prince William, and Spotsylvania reflects the Republicans' nationwide problem with nonwhite and young voters. With nonwhite voters showing double digit gains in Northern Virginia's outer suburbs, the pool of reliable white, conservative voters shrank as a percentage of the electorate. Similarly, the GOP's poor showing with young voters became acute when Obama turned out huge numbers in college towns (up 49 percent in Charlottesville, for example).

The open question, both in Virginia and nationally, is whether these gains are permanent or a result of a once-in-a-lifetime Obama turnout machine that targeted -Virginia as a swing state. (Obama successfully raised turnout 15 percent with huge gains among African Americans, a phenomenon not sustainable in nonpresidential election years.)

Some attribute the GOP's woes not to larger national or geographic trends but to poor candidates or poor campaigns, ruefully recalling the failed 2005 governor's race when Jerry Kilgore emphasized the death penalty, illegal immigration, and social issues but spoke little about bread-and-butter Virginia issues like education and transportation. Others point to a spate of embarrassing public gaffes by rural Republicans as evidence the party is too extreme or unwelcoming to minorities.

The guessing game about whether Republicans can bounce back is intensifying in Virginia thanks to the 2009 gubernatorial race--the first big political race of the Obama era. Eight times since the 1970s, Virginia has elected a gubernatorial candidate from the party opposite to the one which captured the White House the prior year. Even aside from this historical trend, Republicans like their chances in Virginia.

For starters, the Democrats lack a dominating candidate like former governor and now senator Mark Warner or his successor, Tim Kaine, and are headed for a hotly contested primary. Former DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe is spending heavily to overpower two other contenders, Brian J. Moran, until recently a state delegate, and state senator R. Creigh Deeds. (Moran and Deeds are respected Virginia politicians who "have pounded the pavement," says Wasserman, but both lack an easy path to the nomination.) By contrast, McAuliffe will have tens of millions of dollars from across the country (Virginia has no campaign finance limits) and the best team and ads he can buy.

Republicans are keen to match up against McAuliffe. "A good case can be made that, despite his money and national connections, McAuliffe would be the toughest sale to make to Virginians for Democrats. His Clinton baggage alone will cost him a lot," says Sabato. "And no one thinks he fits the long-time image of a Virginia governor." It came as a surprise to many Virginians that McAuliffe was even a resident given his complete lack of participation in local politics. (He explored a run for governor of Florida several years back.)

While the Democrats are headed into battle, the Republicans have already settled on a candidate, Virginia attorney general Robert McDonnell. He is a 21-year veteran of the U.S. Army, a father of five (whose daughter just returned from service in Iraq), a Northern Virginia native, and a Catholic. He is conservative on social issues, but known for his bipartisan, workmanlike approach as AG and for his attempts to forge a deal on Virginia's knottiest issue: transportation.

Republican strategists think they finally may have a candidate suited to win across the state. McDonnell was the last statewide Republican candidate (in 2005) to win suburban counties like Prince William, Loudoun, Henrico, Chesapeake, and Virginia Beach. Even if he does not win Fairfax County--where one in seven Virginia voters lives--Republicans think he can get at least 45 percent of those voters while doing well in the outer suburbs and his home base of Virginia Beach and in more rural areas.

There is certainly nothing "Old Virginia" about McDonnell. He appears to be the quintessential Northern Virginia businessman. Trimly built and slightly graying, McDonnell, 54, is a departure from recent Republican candidates in Virginia. He looks much like the urban and suburban voters he is courting--polite, soft-spoken, and surrounded by an array of electronic gadgetry which allows him to keep up on paper work and communicate with his office during long days on the road. He is dressed neatly in a gray suit as he travels from stop to stop on a typical day of retail politics. Only a slight accent ever peeks through: There is no drawl, no cowboy boots, and virtually no talk about hot button social issues. He reiterates his strong pro-life record, from which he insists, "I will not deviate one iota," but stresses, "You gotta connect with voters on what they care about."

McDonnell is aware of the luxury of watching his opponents fight it out for six months. By the end of June, he jokes, the Democrats will be "broke, tired, and divided." Still, he is realistic: "At the same time the mainstream media love the chase. They're going to have the chase and I'm not." Still, he's not concerned that he will be out of the limelight. As attorney general he can make news--as he did with his recent appeal to the Supreme Court of a Virginia Supreme Court decision striking down a portion of an anti-spam statute that he championed. And an all-star lineup of GOP favorites from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Sarah Palin and Rudy Giuliani will draw crowds to his rallies while the Democrats squabble.

And he's making the most of his time by staying out on the trail, reassuring the base, reaching out to ethnic voters and honing the themes of his campaign. In remarks before the Mount Vernon Women's Republican Club, he rattles off his career highlights and reminds the group of his connections to Northern Virginia. He vows to make his campaign about "common sense conservative principles." The Virginia Republican party is clearly in need of help, and McDonnell makes no bones about it. He constantly asks, "What can we do better?"

As we travel between stops, McDonnell diverts his driver around the suburbs of Northern Virginia, pointing out his old elementary and high schools, and pulling up into the driveway of the modest Mount Vernon home where he grew up. The day is full of reminiscing--there is where he collected driftwood near a stream at Ft. Belvoir, here is where he would sled down the street ("If you got rolling and had enough wax you could go down this second hill"), and that's the house where his childhood friend, now an aide to one of the Democratic contenders, grew up. The message is clear: Unlike Terry McAuliffe, Bob McDonnell is a homegrown Virginian. More important, he is a Northern Virginian. And that is key--because that's where the votes are.

His emphasis on his Northern Virginian roots is only one indication that his campaign is the product of lessons learned from prior Republican defeats. If Republicans have been losing in Virginia's suburbs and exurbs, McDonnell is committed to campaigning in them and selling conservatism there. If Republicans were tagged as too ideological, he is emphatic: "We win by addressing quality of life issues." If Republicans did poorly with minorities, he says it is now "absolutely imperative to talk to members of new ethnic communities" and explain how Republican policies relate to their concerns. Indeed his schedule this day--visits with a Republican women's group, Hispanic leaders, and Korean community leaders--reflects the diverse electorate he needs to inspire. On the immigration debate, he is particularly blunt about Republican failures. We "haven't articulated that properly. The discussion didn't start with the proposition that we encourage lawful immigration." Declaring himself to be an advocate of immigration reform at the federal level he says that visa limits need to be raised while borders are enforced. He is emphatic that illegal immigrants who commit crimes need to be deported, but he returns to his central theme: "The message [must be] welcoming to new immigrants to come to America lawfully and pursue the American dream."

His meeting with a group of Korean-American community leaders in a law office in Annandale--the heart of the growing Korean community in Northern Virginia--is revealing. This is the face of the "new Virginia" which a McCain campaign aide referred to as "not real Virginia." Koreans are one of the largest ethnic minorities in the state, and McDonnell wants to make inroads here. First and second generation Korean-Americans pepper him with questions: "Why do you want to be governor?" What are Republicans doing to avoid the label as the "rich, white party"? One woman says that Democrats are able to say, "We are for average people."

McDonnell is candid without being defensive. "We haven't done nearly as well as we should engaging you." He smoothly moves to talking about Republican values as a natural fit for immigrant business people--low taxes, less regulation and litigation, hard work, responsibility, and education. He knows his audience well and gets approving murmurs and nods when he promises this group--which prizes education as a way up the ladder of success (and includes parents of many overachieving school age children)--to address the issue of making sure "kids with 3.8 [grade point] averages [can get] into UVA and Virginia Tech."

While pundits and Beltway insiders dwell on the fine points of policy, this crowd just wants attention for their community. An effervescent woman sporting a bright red blazer and a large gold elephant brooch implores McDonnell, "Just come for five minutes [to community events]. Eat our food. Shake our hands. They want more openness. .  .  . Don't be shy."

It is a similar scene later that evening at a gathering of regional Hispanic leaders, many veterans of past Republican campaigns. They aren't timid about reminding McDonnell of the challenge for Republican candidates. One attendee tells McDonnell matter-of-factly that he must make inroads with Northern Virginia Hispanics: "If we [end up] with over a 100,000 vote deficit from Northern Virginia, we'll be in trouble." He suggests that the group can help "craft a message" that is both conservative and appealing to Hispanic voters.

McDonnell begins his remarks with a welcome in passable Spanish, noting that his wife speaks Spanish and lived in Mexico. And he picks up on the offer, "Your wanting to help me craft a message is incredibly helpful. I understand we need to run a different kind of race." He acknowledges that Republicans haven't connected on the issues that Hispanics care about. He repeats the message of the day, "I do need your help."

After the meeting, Sergio, a professional in his mid-30s, tells me that Republicans' errors boil down to a "messaging mistake." He explains, "You ask people what Obama's message was? 'Change.' McCain's? You get 13 answers." And what of the argument that McCain's poor showing with Hispanics "proves" that immigration reform is a loser for Republicans? He smiles, "Look at any leader of color in the GOP. They will tell you that [if that's the view], we won't win a national election ever again." On school choice and entrepreneurship he says Republicans can make headway. The challenge he says is to "rebuild the party" and "make it more inclusive."

These are tough times in Virginia as they are around the country. A looming budget deficit, deficient infrastructure, and concerns about overcrowded state universities will confront the next governor. But despite the economic difficulties and his party's recent failures, McDonnell is upbeat. "We ought to be happy conservatives," he counsels. "We think our principles work, and we should act like it."

Indeed what is striking is the degree to which Republicans around the state do seem happy. The end of the Bush presidency seems to have lifted a weight from them. McDonnell doesn't mince words, "The central message of Obama and state races was to make George Bush the scapegoat for all that was wrong with America." And, he concedes, conservatives weren't any happier with Bush's spending spree and the failure to achieve promised reforms. Sandy Liddy Bourne, the incoming president of the Mount Vernon Women's Republican Club, points out, "This is a great moment of growth [for the state GOP]. We cut a lot of dead wood. We have real work to do. The Democrats really outworked us on absentee ballots, turnout," but with a liberal Democratic president and Democratic Congress, "I'm very excited to have a moment of clarity."

McDonnell is certainly not naïve about what lies ahead. Democrats recognize the race's importance. It is not just about holding the governorship of a swing state for a third term, but a chance to confirm that their 2008 victories were not just a reflection of Barack Obama personally, but of a broader shift in the national political terrain. McDonnell expects the race to be tough, even nasty, and Democrats to make familiar arguments that the Republicans are "extremists," obsessed by social issues. (A Virginia Republican insider suggested to me that the Democrats may have the same problem that Republicans had portraying Obama as a radical: The extremism charge simply doesn't seem to fit the mild-mannered and practical-minded figure they will be facing.)

While the Virginia contest will garner national attention and be judged as the bellwether of Republican fortunes, McDonnell tries to keep it in perspective: "I'm the first significant statewide race [after the 2008 election] but I'm not running to save the national Republican party. I'm running to be a visionary governor of Virginia." But money will pour in, and national political figures will pay visits. What is at stake is not just the Virginia governorship, but the political storyline heading into the 2010 midterm elections. This is a lot of pressure on McDonnell, but if he pulls it off, his formula--conservative principles, minority outreach, and a problem-solving message--will become the model for Republicans trekking back from the political wilderness. And if not, he'll be fodder for those contending that Republicans are headed for a long sojourn in that wilderness.

Jennifer Rubin is the Washington editor for Pajamas Media and blogs at Commentary magazine's Contentions website.

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