In the last year of his four-year term, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell remains firmly popular with Virginia voters, getting high marks from independents, Democrats and Republicans on how he is handling his duties as governor and his personal ethics, according to a new Washington Post poll.
Overall, 64 percent of all registered voters in the commonwealth say they approve of the job McDonnell (R) is doing, up six percentage points from two Post surveys last year. His approval rating is as high as it has been in periodic Post polls over his tenure. The positive ratings cut across the political spectrum, with the biggest improvement coming among Democratic voters. Fifty-two percent of them say McDonnell is doing a good job, compared with 38 percent last September.
There is also cross-party agreement that McDonnell has “high personal moral and ethical standards.” Fifty-nine percent of all Virginians say so; just 16 percent say he does not, and 25 percent are unsure.
The latest poll numbers come not long after McDonnell claimed a major legislative victory with the passage of a landmark transportation plan and as the FBI raises questions about his relationship with donor and Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr.
McDonnell, who cannot succeed himself under the state’s constitution, spent much of his political capital this year when he urged legislators to eliminate the state’s gas tax, raise the sales tax and devote more general-fund revenue to road projects. The move — in a year when the House of Delegates is up for election — divided tax-wary Republicans and Democrats reluctant to divert resources to transportation over priorities such as education.
After weeks of negotiations that included laying the groundwork for expanding Medicaid in the state, the General Assembly reached an 11th-hour compromise on transportation that was very different from McDonnell’s original plan but that he touted as a pragmatic, bipartisan solution to an issue that has eluded Richmond lawmakers for nearly a generation. The plan is expected to raise $1.4 billion a year for road projects over five years.
“He understood there was a problem that needed to be solved, and he realized he had a bunch of his ideas that he wouldn’t get through unless he agreed to compromise,” said Paul Slattery, 71, of McLean. “I thought it was more responsible than the hard-line positions other people around him wanted him to take.”
Charles Davis, who describes himself as a “New Deal Democrat,” called the transportation bill “a good compromise” and gave McDonnell grudging good marks.
“He could have done worse, I guess,” said Davis, 80, a retired federal contracting employee who lives in Burke. “Considering what we have to work with here — the Republican House down in Richmond — I think he’s done well.”
But more recently McDonnell, often mentioned as a potential national candidate, has been caught in a media storm over his relationship with Williams, who paid a $15,000 catering tab for the 2011 wedding of one of the governor’s daughters.
McDonnell has said that he did not disclose the gift because it was not made directly to him but to his daughter. Under Virginia law, elected officials are not required to report gifts to members of their family.
“I’ve been rather impressed by him, up until the past few weeks,” Slattery said, referring to the Star Scientific controversy. “And he was talking to the other side. He was demonstrating that he was educable.”
Despite receiving national attention, the Star Scientific story has yet to resonate widely: Just 32 percent of all Virginia residents say they are following even somewhat closely, including a slender 9 percent following “very closely.”
Still, nearly three-quarters say there should be limits to the amount of gifts made to candidates or officeholders; only two in 10 take no issue with the current rule, which allows unlimited gifts, as long as they are disclosed. Additionally, 73 percent say gifts to immediate family should be reported.
“He’s the governor and . . . he should know what is right,” said Frank Cosgrove, 60, of Fairfax. A former auditor for the federal government, Cosgrove said the rules at his job forbade employees to accept any gifts over $25.
“That’s kind of odd that there’s no guidelines,” Cosgrove said of state rules. “I just don’t like that because anybody could give them anything . . . I don’t think that’s right. Federal employees couldn’t do that. We just had rules we had to follow.”
Nancy Grant, 81, of Reston, a self-described “born, lifelong Democrat,” said she disapproved of the gift to McDonnell’s daughter.
“I don’t think, in his political position, that was a very wise move,” she said. “He should’ve paid for his own daughter’s wedding. He certainly could afford to.”
The governor’s high marks could be attributed to Virginians’ good feelings about the state of the commonwealth. Asked how they would rate the overall economy of Virginia, 62 percent of registered voters say the economy is “excellent” or “good,” compared with 37 percent who say “not so good” or “poor.”
Under McDonnell, Virginia has reported a $1.4 billion budget surplus, some of which he has used to boost the state’s rainy day coffers and restore higher education funding.
This Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone April 29 to May 2, among a random sample of 1,000 Virginia adults, including 887 registered voters and users of both conventional and cellular phones.
The results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points; it is 4 points for the sample of registered voters.
Craighill is polling manager for Capital Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media. Capital Insight’s director of polling, Jon Cohen; pollster Scott Clement; and staff writers Fredrick Kunkle, Ben Pershing and Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.