By Amy Gardner, Rosalind S. Helderman and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
The Virginia governor's race ignited Monday over Republican Robert F. McDonnell's 20-year-old graduate thesis: Democrats assailed him in e-mail blasts and interviews for what he wrote about working women, homosexuals and "fornicators," and McDonnell tried to explain his views to crucial moderate and female voters.
After a sleepy summer filled with rural RV tours and policy papers on energy and the economy, news of the thesis, first reported Sunday in The Washington Post, pushed the race to a fever pitch.
McDonnell's opponent, Democrat R. Creigh Deeds, bombarded state and national media with details of the thesis, submitted by McDonnell in 1989 for a master of arts in public policy and juris doctorate in law from Regent University in Virginia Beach.
McDonnell, meanwhile, spoke by telephone to reporters for nearly 90 minutes, saying that his views have changed on many of the issues he explored as a graduate student. He also released a list of women who support his campaign.
"I'm disappointed but not surprised that my opponent wants to make this a central issue in the campaign," said McDonnell, the former state attorney general and a 14-year veteran of the House of Delegates. "During my years in the General Assembly, Senator Deeds would suggest that I have this undue focus on social issues. That's just a flat misrepresentation."
In the thesis, "The Republican Party's Vision for the Family: The Compelling Issue of The Decade," McDonnell described working women as "detrimental" to the traditional family. He criticized a U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing contraception for unmarried couples and decried the "purging" of religion from schools. He advocated character education programs in public schools to teach "traditional Judeo-Christian values," and he criticized federal tax credits for child care expenditures because they encouraged women to enter the workforce.
In his call with reporters Monday, a calm and prepared McDonnell explained in detail how he feels about issues that include gay rights, abortion and women's rights. He mentioned several times that on some issues he agrees with Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), the state's first Catholic governor, as well as with President Obama.
McDonnell said he still believes marriage should be limited to one man and one woman but thinks that discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation or marital status has no place in government or on the job. He said that he no longer agrees with what he wrote about women in the workforce and that regardless of his personal views, he "would follow the law," as he did as attorney general.
With a recent Washington Post poll giving McDonnell a substantial lead, Deeds and other Democrats sought Monday to shift the momentum.
McDonnell has focused his campaign on job creation, a message that has resonated with pro-business moderates. On Monday, Democrats focused on McDonnell's conservatism.
The Deeds campaign sent out a fundraising appeal with the thesis as its main focus. The state Democratic Party produced a video, "Bob McDonnell's Secret Blueprint for Virginia," setting a news report about the document to driving, apocalyptic classical music. And Kaine, who is chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said that after years of working with McDonnell in Richmond, he was "not surprised" by what he read in the thesis.
"To me, it seems like kind of a blueprint of, 'Here's what I hope to do as an elected official,' and I think he's been working diligently to do that," Kaine said.
The story quickly spread on liberal blogs, including Daily Kos, Talking Points Memo and the Huffington Post. By late afternoon, more than 70 blogs had picked up the thread.
Democrats have long attempted to characterize McDonnell as an ultra-conservative who is playing down his views on such issues as abortion, school prayer and gay rights so as not to alienate moderate voters, particularly in Northern Virginia, who increasingly decide statewide elections.
But McDonnell's public record and his reputation among colleagues paint a more complex portrait. He appears as a man with deeply conservative views that spring from a strong Catholic faith but also as reasonable, open-minded and increasingly focused on such issues as jobs and transportation.
"What I found in him is exactly what I found in Tim Kaine: A man with a considerable intellect, who is prepared to think and rethink constantly," said Randal J. Kirk, who was Kaine's biggest individual donor in 2005. Kirk said he is considering a donation to McDonnell.
By disavowing earlier views on working women and the traditional family and saying little on abortion and gay marriage, McDonnell is choosing to appeal to moderates and suburban women -- but might alienate the conservative base.
"There are three ways to lose," said Patrick M. McSweeney, a former state GOP chairman and a standard-bearer of the party's right wing. "One is you can state a position that is controversial and offend a lot of people. Second, you can not take a position and offend people who want leaders. And third, you can back away from a previously held view. But the worst thing to do is to lose votes in all three of those areas."
The reaction of women and moderates was hard to measure Monday. Democratic legislative candidates in Northern Virginia said they were stunned at the number of voters they encountered who had read about the thesis and were dismayed by it. The Deeds campaign reported signing up 300 donors since Sunday.
"If you're going to run on a jobs platform, how do you do that when you relegate half of the working population to second-class status? Because that's what this paper he wrote reveals," said Del. Margaret G. Vanderhye (D-Fairfax).
Some Republicans said they had heard little reaction. Others said party activists were energized, convinced that McDonnell is being unfairly attacked over an old academic paper. Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) said attendees Sunday at a Republican Women's Club rally in Fairfax said they were incensed over what they called a "hatchet job."