By Marc Fisher
Sunday, February 22, 2009
D emocrats don't yet claim Virginia as their own, but they have won two straight governor's races, both U.S. Senate seats, two out of three House seats in the Washington suburbs and a majority in the state Senate. So who does the Republican Party choose to pry the door to the Washington suburbs back open?
How about a hard-core social conservative who was groomed for politics at the Rev. Pat Robertson's Regent University law school, a man who has spent most of his adult life in Hampton Roads and Richmond, a clean-cut fellow with a military bearing and an unabashed conviction that he can become Virginia's next governor by pushing hard on many of the same issues that have sent his party to defeat again and again in recent years.
"If I do things that support strong, intact, two-parent families, is that a social issue?" asks Bob McDonnell, who was Virginia's attorney general for three years before resigning to campaign full time. "Because that's something I think we need to address. The architects of Virginia's greatness have stood up for Virginia values of respect for life, family and supporting the law. I am pro-life and I'm not shying away from that. I am going to talk about those things."
Yes, there is a "but" coming.
McDonnell contends that he stands a far stronger chance of winning -- and capturing support in the Washington suburbs -- because he's focusing more on transportation and health care than on the guns, gays and God hot-button issues Republicans have tried to ride to Richmond in the past decade.
Democrats readily concede that McDonnell has some appeal in Northern Virginia. Though he's well to the right of the Washington area's increasingly liberal electorate on abortion, gay rights and guns, McDonnell seems free of the anger and antipathy to this region that many Republicans in Richmond wear on their sleeves.
As his campaign never tires of reminding voters, although McDonnell represented Virginia Beach in the state House, he grew up in a classically Democratic family in Fairfax County. Beyond those roots, he tells audiences statewide that "our economic engine is undeniably Northern Virginia."
His mother worked for a Democratic congressman and volunteered as a pollwatcher on election days. His parents, Irish Catholics from Boston, were Kennedy loyalists. And McDonnell at first followed his parents' political path. He cast his first vote for president for Jimmy Carter.
But by the time McDonnell finished stints at Notre Dame and in the Army, his perspective had begun to shift. He became a student of Christian theology, wrote his thesis on welfare policy and decided to attend Robertson's law school, which says its mission is to "equip and empower Christian leaders who will change the world."
Today, McDonnell believes that the values his parents instilled in him were actually more consonant with the Republican Party than with their beloved Democrats. "My parents raised me with basic values of work hard, follow the Golden Rule, give part of my allowance to church," he says. "By the time I got to law school, my views about the roles of family and government had transformed me into a Republican. Anyway, John Kennedy probably had more in common with Ronald Reagan than with Hillary Clinton."
Yet as he prepares to take on whoever emerges from June's Democratic primary, McDonnell is positioning himself as a moderate who shares the growing popular disenchantment with the GOP.
"There were no excuses for the Republicans over the past eight years," he says. "You had the presidency, and you had the Congress. But domestic spending soared, and the national debt doubled. I think that's embarrassing. There were promises to reform Social Security and immigration, and they didn't get done. And then you had the party of family values doing some things that were not proper -- all those scandals, most of them Republican -- Abramoff, Foley. It's all created a very jaundiced view of what Republicans are all about."
But his campaign is neither bi- nor postpartisan. If his eventual opponent is Terry McAuliffe, McDonnell knows he will face the consummate fundraiser, who is also joyously partisan. With the governor's race turning into the nation's premier political contest this year, McDonnell is bringing in the big guns of his own party, including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, "and a number of other rock stars," probably including Alaska's Sarah Palin.
McDonnell says he believes that lineup can help him even in Northern Virginia. Barack Obama's powerful victory was a product of a great candidate, bad times and poor governing by Republicans, he says.
The solutions he talks about don't involve tax increases. Instead, he wants to boost access to Virginia's colleges by putting strict limits on the number of out-of-state students admitted (but that would only exacerbate the schools' financial woes, since out-of-state students pay vastly higher tuition.) And he wants to build and expand highways by entering into more public-private partnerships (which would mean more Lexus lanes, limiting access to people willing to pay dearly for a less-congested commute).
"We're all liberals at heart," he says. "We just don't want to pay for it."
Last in a series on candidates for governor of Virginia