January 7, 2013

LAST YEAR, REPUBLICANS in Richmond did their utmost to drive the state’s independent and swing voters into the Democratic column. Witness their mean-spirited, provocative and extremist stances to mandate transvaginal ultrasounds; make voting more difficult for minorities, youths and others who may lack photo IDs; oppose a highly qualified judicial nominee who is gay; loosen the state’s already lax gun laws; and mandate drug testing for welfare recipients.

Some of those measures were enacted, some were defeated and others were watered down. All helped brand the GOP as the party of intemperance, alienating moderate voters, particularly in Northern Virginia, which accounted for a third of the state’s ballots. As Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) has noted, that region’s overwhelmingly pro-Democratic tilt turned Virginia blue in 2012.

Now, as state lawmakers again convene in the capital for a 45-day legislative session, the question is whether Republicans, who control the General Assembly, have learned anything from the election. Early indications are they have not.

Once again, Republicans are gearing up to tighten restrictions on voting, this time by offering bills that would narrow the forms of ID required to vote. Once again, they are submitting a variety of anti-abortion and anti-contraception legislation. Once again, they will propose laws seeking to stigmatize the least fortunate Virginians, who are disproportionately African American and Hispanic, by forcing them to undergo humiliating drug tests if they receive welfare subsidies. Once again, even after the massacre in Connecticut, they are primed to spike sensible gun-control initiatives while pushing measures to allow more guns around schools and college campuses.

Some of those measures will not get far, as some in the Republican leadership have begun to grasp how self-defeating they are. But will the party’s back-benchers be able to contain themselves? Will they, for instance, be capable of confirming Tracy Thorne-Begland, a highly regarded former Richmond prosecutor who is gay, to a district court judgeship? Last year, he was the only one among scores of judicial candidates statewide whose nomination was blocked — with every nay vote in the House of Delegates cast by a Republican.

All of this is light years away from the core issues that moderate and swing voters, particularly in Northern Virginia, care about. Critically, those voters want Richmond to fix the state’s transportation funding mess, which has been allowed to fester for more than two decades. Virginia needs at least $1 billion more in annual ongoing revenue to maintain and improve its badly overburdened system of roads, rails and bridges; without it, the state will run out of construction money four years from now.

Mr. McDonnell is preparing to unveil legislation to address that problem, and it will be his party’s challenge to fashion a common-sense solution that gets traffic moving. If, in the alternative, Republicans continue to dwell on sideshows, they will inflict damage on the state as well as on their party.