“We know what he meant,” said Sen. Bill Stanley (Franklin), a conservative Republican from Southside Virginia who attended some of the gatherings.
But apparently not everyone took his words to heart. The increasingly influential conservative wing of McDonnell’s party — which now controls the state government in Richmond — has swiftly taken on abortion, adoption and guns. And no initiative was more politically perilous than the ultrasound bill softened last week after ferocious opposition that stretched beyond Virginia’s borders.
The governor moved quickly to limit any lasting political damage to his national profile, but scrutiny of socially conservative legislation united Democrats and bore out McDonnell’s concerns. That legislative blunder also underscored McDonnell’s quandary: how to strike a balance between the interests of his Virginia Republican allies and his own practical political needs.
McDonnell is a potential vice presidential contender, and national Republicans are counting on him to deliver Virginia — a swing state in recent years — to GOP presidential and U.S. Senate candidates in November.
Bob Holsworth, a former professor at Virginia Commonwealth University with a deep knowledge of state politics, said the governor has been successful at managing conflicting goals. “McDonnell is a national figure,’’ Holsworth said. “He’s simultaneously running two campaigns: one for his budget and other priorities and one a silent campaign for the vice presidency.’’
McDonnell declined a request for an interview, and he has been careful not to be critical of Republican lawmakers.
“What I would say is, it’s absolutely false to say there’s been an overreach,’’ McDonnell told reporters last week. “The story of this session will be what I said it would be a month and half ago: We’re going to create more opportunities and more jobs.’’
In the middle
McDonnell, who was once considered one of the most conservative legislators in the state House of Delegates, has surprised his critics by largely governing from the middle, as he campaigned. He has worked to shore up the state’s economy, ease traffic congestion and boost education opportunities, lobbying legislators on such priorities as his first two-year budget (as opposed to the two-year budget he inherited from his Democratic predecessor in 2010).
But social issues have yielded the most-intense debates and garnered the most attention. The ultrasound legislation, for instance, drew the ire and ridicule of left-leaning cable shows and late-night comedians after it became clear that the bill would require women seeking an abortion to undergo a vaginal probe. McDonnell first backed the bill but later said he hadn’t known all the details.