Bob McDonnell's blowout victory in Virginia's gubernatorial race is both a comeback story and a cautionary tale for those who believe in "permanent majorities" in American politics.
For Republicans this was a dramatic first step back from the 2006 and 2008 thrashings and proof that Barack Obama's presidency has spawned a conservative counterinsurgency. As McDonnell told THE WEEKLY STANDARD as the polls were closing, "I don't think there is any doubt that the federal issues have created an advantage for me." He reeled off cap and trade, taxes, unfunded mandates, and health care reform as top issues. "I have taken a stand against them. My opponent has been ambivalent or in favor."
The Virginia GOP lost gubernatorial races in 2001 and 2005, congressional and Senate contests in 2006 and 2008, control of the state senate in 2007, and the presidential race in 2008. (As a recount winner in the 2005 attorney general race, McDonnell was the last Virginia Republican to escape before 2006's electoral tidal wave and the first to emerge in 2009.)
While conservative pundits were still agonizing over the 2008 results, McDonnell's communications director Tucker Martin says, "We didn't have the luxury to do punditry." Campaign manager Phil Cox explains McDonnell's serenity during a time of GOP angst: "He knows who he is. He knew what kind of campaign he wanted to run." Starting in December 2008, McDonnell began running as someone "who would never back away from conservative principles but someone who can solve problems."
Unlike other Republicans, he didn't have to run while the faltering Iraq war, Katrina, and GOP scandals dominated the news. A senior McDonnell adviser notes, it was advantageous simply "to introduce himself as Bob McDonnell and not Bob plus anyone else." McDonnell also had the advantage of a pattern over the previous eight Virginia gubernatorial races, in which the party that captured the White House lost the following year's gubernatorial race.
Democrats were optimistic after their June primary that the more centrist Creigh Deeds would be better positioned against McDonnell than former DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe or the more liberal Brian Moran. But McDonnell had defeated Deeds in 2005, and his camp knew Deeds angered easily, lacked an animating philosophy, had run six points below the top of the ticket (and poorly in Northern Virginia), and had a tax and spend record. McDonnell, moreover, had been planning his run for years with a cohesive campaign team, volunteer networks, and a problem-solving message.
Without a primary challenger, McDonnell also had the luxury to focus on independent voters (whom he won by a stunning 2 to 1 margin) and on his policy proposals. Beginning in February, McDonnell took on liberal policies on taxation, spending, cap and trade, card check, and government-run health care. As Obama's ratings on these policies plunged, McDonnell was positioned to hammer home his objections to the Democrats' agenda.
Two events in July foretold the race's outcome. On July 20 African-American Democratic business leader Sheila Johnson endorsed McDonnell, to Democrats' chagrin. "Everyone saw the significance of what happened," a McDonnell adviser noted. A prominent Democrat was citing McDonnell's problem-solving, pro-business outlook. On July 21 the McDonnell camp pulled a late night refining a detailed transportation plan. McDonnell thereafter contrasted his program with Deeds's lack of one. Cox observes, "In retrospect it was very important because the Deeds campaign did not put out a plan," allowing McDonnell to "grab the mantle" of reform and policy innovation.
Deeds sealed his fate in the September 17 debate. Cornered, Deeds said he would consider raising taxes in a recession. In the press gaggle afterward Deeds talked in circles, a moment replayed endlessly in McDonnell ads. The image, as Cox observes, was of "a guy who wasn't speaking straight and was going to raise your taxes in a pretty tough economic time." On September 20 the Washington Post ran an op-ed chastising Deeds for waffling. On September 23 Deeds responded with his own op-ed declaring that he would be open to a tax increase. The next day the Post endorsed Deeds, citing as a key factor his willingness to raise taxes.
The McDonnell team had its dream race: fiscal conservative versus tax hiker. As a top campaign strategist remarks, with his voting record Deeds wasn't "the centrist everyone [was] trying to portray him as. We tagged him out of the chute [as a big taxer] and then he reinforced it."
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."
The results in Northern Virginia should alarm Democrats. This region had trended their way in recent years, reflecting growing anti-GOP sentiment in the Bush administration's final years. As Fairfax County Republican chairman Anthony Bedell explains, "Northern Virginia is very Washington centric." And it was there that voters eyed events in D.C. and embraced McDonnell's message of fiscal conservatism. McDonnell took Fairfax County (which George Allen lost by 65,000 votes and John McCain by 110,000) 51 to 49 percent and ran up even higher margins in Washington, D.C.'s farther flung suburbs.
The Virginia results confirm that Republicans are returning from the political wilderness. An effective candidate with the right message can rebuild a winning center-right coalition. The right message in the Obama era is firm opposition to the national Democratic party agenda.
Jennifer Rubin is a lawyer and contributing editor at Commentary.