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Team of Rivals

Could the governors of Texas and Virginia end up on a national ticket together?

Sep 26, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 02 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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Richmond, Virginia

Team of Rivals

AP / Steve Helber

"We’re friendly rivals,” says Virginia governor Bob McDonnell of his relationship with Texas governor Rick Perry. “Texas and Virginia have a lot in common in terms of business rankings and the criminal justice system. All my relatives are from the Texas A&M area, so I’ve always had an affinity for Texas. He’s a veteran, I’m a veteran.”

McDonnell is sitting on a couch in his office. In about an hour, he’s scheduled to walk a few blocks to the convention center in downtown Richmond to introduce Perry, who is headlining a fundraiser that afternoon for the Virginia Republican party.

Months ago, when McDonnell asked Perry to appear at the event, the Texas governor hadn’t announced his campaign for president. Now that Perry’s in it to win it and has rocketed to the top of the polls, McDonnell’s fundraiser has effectively been turned into a Perry campaign event.

The rivalry between the two men may indeed be “friendly,” but there’s a trace of determination in McDonnell’s voice conveying that the competition with Perry is something he takes quite seriously.

“We are friends, but we’ve always been very competitive because Texas and Virginia have always been at the top of the heap, competing [to attract] the same businesses,” says McDonnell. “He beats me on some stuff, I beat him on some stuff.”

Last year, when CNBC released its annual listing of the “Top States for Business,” Texas was ranked number one and Virginia number two. “So I called [Perry] and said, ‘The only reason we slacked off is because you’re running for reelection and we want to make you look good, but I’m going to kick your butt next year,’ ” recounts McDonnell. “He laughed and said, ‘Yeah, yeah, right.’ ”

At the end of June, the 2011 CNBC rankings were released. Sure enough, Virginia was number one and Texas was number two. “He was the first guy to call me this year, eating crow and say, ‘Okay, you told me!’ ” says McDonnell.

For a guy who is about to introduce the most talked-about GOP politician in the country, McDonnell doesn’t need to worry about being upstaged. He has quietly emerged as one of the most accomplished and popular Republicans, although the national media haven’t much noticed.

That same day last week, Quinnipiac University released a poll showing that McDonnell has a 61 percent approval rating. He is tied with New York governor Andrew Cuomo for the best approval rating in the survey. Even among Virginia’s black voters, more approve of McDonnell’s performance as governor than disapprove—“a highly unusual finding for a Republican office-holder,” observes Quinnipiac.

McDonnell’s approval ratings are also soaring in a state that is by no means a Republican stronghold. Obama carried Virginia by 6 points in 2008, but a year later McDonnell was elected by a 17-point margin.

McDonnell’s legislative achievements certainly measure up to the impressive work Perry’s done in the Lone Star State. Texas may have recently closed a $15 billion budget deficit, but in the last year Virginia, which has less than a third the population of Texas, went from a $4 billion deficit to a $545 million surplus.

Closing a $15 billion budget deficit is by any measure a real test of political leadership, but Perry had the benefit of a GOP supermajority in Texas’s last legislative session. McDonnell isn’t so lucky.

“I’ve got the same issue Obama does—I have a Republican House and a Democratic Senate,” observes McDonnell. Not only did McDonnell have to muster bipartisan support for getting the budget into balance, the latest state budget passed the Virginia legislature unanimously.

On employment, Texas’s record of job creation is unparalleled—over one million new jobs in the decade that Perry’s been governor. However, Texas’s unemployment rate is currently 8.4 percent, where Virginia’s is 6.1 percent.

To be fair, the rate in Texas in part reflects large inflows of unemployed people looking for work. And Virginia’s unemployment rate might be considered artificially low thanks to the large number of federal jobs in the northern part of the state. Still, with unemployment at 9.1 percent nationally, it seems clear that the jobs situation in both states is enviably better than in the rest of the country.

So what’s the key to McDonnell’s success? “We’ve really tried to place the focus on what people really care about. .  .  . [We’re] cutting spending so that we’ve ended up with surpluses, but at the same time investing in bread and butter issues that people really are concerned about: transportation, higher education, job creation,” says McDonnell. “Those were major new investments we made in the budget while we cut dramatically in other areas.”

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