How did Bob McDonnell let it get this bad?

July 29, 2013

No politician this side of Anthony Weiner has had a worse year than Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. He began 2013 as a potential White House contender. A little more than halfway through the year he is fighting off talk that he might have to resign before he is term limited out of office next January.


Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. AP photo.

The latest in a series of blows to reign rain down on McDonnell came Sunday with a report in the Post that McDonnell's wife, Maureen, had spent nearly $10,000 on clothes from her husband's campaign account.  This is not illegal -- Virginia's campaign finance laws are quite lax -- but, it, like so many of the other stories involving McDonnell and his family broken by the Post this year, it just plain looks bad.

Rich Galen, a private spokesman for the governor and first lady on the investigations, said that Maureen McDonnell was borrowing the clothes, which would be donated to charity after the governor completes his term in January. The PAC also said that the items will be returned to the committee and then donated to charity.

The question we keep coming back to is how the heck did Bob McDonnell let this happen. He's spent decades in public office -- including as the state's top cop before being elected governor in 2009 -- and never had attracted the reputation as someone who blurred the lines.

"It's been a surprise to a lot of people, because from seeing the Governor work, he kept his word and seemed to be an ethical leader with integrity," said one veteran operative with extensive experience in Virginia politics. (Politics is like college basketball. Everyone knows who is cheating -- or coming close -- and who isnt.)

Seeking answers, we asked a number of well-connected Republicans in the Commonwealth for their takes on how McDonnell, once seen as a rising star in the national Republican firmament, finds himself barely clinging to office.

The most common reason cited was McDonnell's wife, Maureen, who is at the center of his relationship with Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams, not to mention playing a major role in a number of the other controversies surrounding the governor.

"This is a classic case of what happens when you look under the hood," said one longtime Virginia Republican strategist, granted anonymity to speak candidly about root of McDonnell's problems. "He is not the first governor to do this, but his wife has fired several staffers and they started talking." (To be clear: There is no evidence that Maureen McDonnell could hire or fire anyone.)

McDonnell definitely isn't the first -- and he certainly won't be the last -- politician and/or political spouse who has a blind spot as it relates to his or her significant other. (See Huma Abedin.)

But, the fact that much of the controversy has direct ties to Maureen McDonnell also shouldn't excuse Bob McDonnell's role in all of this, according to a Virginia Republican insider. "The problem is that Bob is so busy doing his thing, he shares some culpability because he turned a blind eye," said the source.

And, it's hard to see how McDonnell's wife is to blame for the $70,000 donation from Williams to a corporation that the governor and his sister co-own.

The other oft-cited reason for McDonnell's remarkable political collapse is the lack of political savvy senior staffers willing to tell the governor "no". "He's surrounded himself with 'yes' men," said one operative closely watching the race.

McDonnell relied on two main political advisers during his supremely well-run campaign for governor in 2009: Ed Gillespie and Phil Cox. Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, has moved on to other endeavors while Cox is running the Republican Governors Association and is simply not engaged in McDonnell's political world.

McDonnell himself seemed to acknowledge that problem last week when he brought on a set of new aides including Galen to help him navigate the morass in which he finds himself.

It's too little, too late. Combine a blind eye to his wife's activities and the lack of someone in his inner circle who could tell him how bad things were getting and you get Bob McDonnell -- a politician whose national career is over before it ever really started.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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