The Magazine

Painting Virginia Red

Anatomy of a GOP victory.

Nov 16, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 09 • By JENNIFER RUBIN
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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."