GOP reclaims Virginia
Messages on taxes, jobs resonate with voters

By Rosalind S. Helderman and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Virginians elected Republican Robert F. McDonnell the commonwealth's 71st governor Tuesday, sweeping the GOP to power and emphatically halting a decade of Democratic advances in the critical swing state.

The exclamation point on the former state attorney general's trouncing of Democratic state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds was a victory in Fairfax County, the state's most populous jurisdiction, which had delivered powerful Democratic majorities to President Obama and Govs. Timothy M. Kaine and Mark Warner. McDonnell also reversed the political order in the Washington region's outer suburbs, winning Loudoun and Prince William counties, which went for Kaine four years ago.

Boosted by a political mood shift that has left many voters cool to Democrats, McDonnell, 55, prevailed with a promise to create jobs in the down economy and fix the state's clogged roads without a tax increase. His campaign avoided the hot-button social issues that in recent elections had alienated voters in Northern Virginia and other urban centers. And he benefited from a lackluster Democratic opponent whom voters came to know in good part from a video clip in which he waffled and stammered when asked if he would raise taxes.

As Republicans swept all statewide offices for the first time in 12 years, joyful activists tossed beach balls at a Richmond hotel as party leaders pronounced a new era of low taxes. "We're back," said former Fairfax County congressman Tom Davis. "The state has moved back toward the center."

Republicans expanded their majority in the House of Delegates by at least four seats. Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling easily won reelection, and Fairfax Sen. Ken Cuccinelli II, one of the most socially conservative members of the Richmond legislature, will be the next attorney general.

McDonnell dominated among independent voters, while Deeds, 51, failed to re-create the coalition that last year helped Barack Obama become the first Democratic presidential candidate to capture Virginia in more than four decades. With turnout in a governor's race slumping below 40 percent for the first time in at least 40 years, Deeds fell well short of the margins Obama, Kaine and Warner amassed among black voters, young people and Northern Virginians. McDonnell won by a particularly wide margin in rural areas, which the Democrat had labeled "Deeds Country," hoping to outperform his Democratic predecessors from his base in the Shenandoah Valley's Bath County.

In the campaign's final days, Deeds made an explicit appeal to Obama voters that a vote for him was a vote in support of the president. But earlier, he had distanced himself from Obama's agenda, especially on health and energy policy.

Inheriting many problems

The three Republicans inherit a government burdened by a severe budget crisis and a transportation network so underfunded that Virginia will soon lack the matching funds necessary to secure U.S. dollars for road construction. For Republicans to build beyond Tuesday's improved showing in Northern Virginia, McDonnell will have to prove that unlike past GOP administrations, he will deliver more resources to Virginia's most populous and affluent region.

At the Richmond Marriott, Republicans who have spent years watching Democrats win election after election roared with excitement as media outlets called the race for McDonnell about 8 p.m. "My promise to you as governor," McDonnell said, "is to strengthen the free-enterprise system, to create more jobs and opportunity so that every Virginian can use their God-given talents to pursue the American dream and liberty here in this great commonwealth."

The magnitude of the GOP sweep had many party leaders recalling the 1993 vote, which also followed the election of a Democratic president. That year, George Allen was elected governor, the leading edge of the Republican revolution that culminated in the party regaining control of Congress a year later. Republicans said Tuesday's wins restored Virginia to its natural political condition, arguing that recent Democratic victories reflectedwidespread anger at former President George W. Bush and the personal popularity of Obama and Warner.

"It's a Republican state. It has been, is now and will be," said Pat Mullins, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia.

Democrats blamed their loss on the natural swing of the political pendulum and said demographic changes will help the party's fortunes over time. "I've been around a long time, and I know that there are cycles in politics like there are in anything in life," said Democratic Party Chairman Richard Cranwell.

Deeds called McDonnell to concede shortly before 9 p.m. "Just because we didn't get the right result tonight doesn't mean we get to go home and whine," Deeds told supporters. "We still have fight, we still have spirit."

Thesis attack fails

From the start, McDonnell had history on his side: Since 1977, no party that has won the White House has gone on to capture Virginia's governorship the next year.

McDonnell's campaign -- supported, like Deeds's, with millions of dollars from his national party -- was on the defensive for only a few weeks, starting with the publication in August of a Washington Post report detailing a master's degree thesis the candidate wrote in 1989 at what is now Regent University in Virginia Beach. In the thesis, written at the Christian-oriented school founded by televangelist Pat Robertson, McDonnell, then 34, outlined an action plan for strengthening the traditional family and wrote that working women were detrimental to the family.

Deeds seized on the thesis, making it the centerpiece of an advertising campaign designed to convince voters that McDonnell was a right-wing extremist who had undergone a disingenuous campaign-year makeover.

The strategy appeared to work for a time, as polls tightened. But McDonnell fought back with a series of TV spots featuring supportive testimonials from his daughter, an Army veteran who served in Iraq, and a gallery of professional women who had worked for him in the attorney general's office. Increasingly, voters said they saw Deeds's campaign as a largely negative one that failed to define his own vision for the state.

McDonnell campaigned on his opposition to federal policies. He criticized the Democratic-led effort to change the nation's health care system and sided with southwest Virginians who believe that proposed federal legislation designed to curb greenhouse gases would cost jobs in the coalfields of that region.

The Republican also relentlessly attacked Deeds over the Democrat's willingness to raise taxes for transportation improvements. A key turning point in the campaign came in September, when Deeds was caught on camera flailing when swarmed by reporters asking whether he would raise taxes to pay for road improvements.

The moment, immediately cut into TV ads aired repeatedly by McDonnell and the Republican Governors Association, highlighted Deeds's stammering speaking style, caught him snapping at a reporter and made him appear indecisive on the critical issues of taxes and transportation.

"I think taxes are high enough," said James Thomas, a 39-year-old accountant who cast his ballot for McDonnell at Clarendon United Methodist Church in Arlington County.

Born in Philadelphia, McDonnell grew up in Fairfax County and played football for Bishop Ireton High School before attending Notre Dame and marrying a Washington Redskins cheerleader. He pointed to his Northern Virginia childhood frequently in a disciplined effort to convince suburbanites he understood their concerns better than Deeds.

"I think McDonnell is better qualified, and he has ideas," said Debbie Zolp, 51, of Dumfries, who cast her ballot for the Republican after voting for Obama last November and Kaine four years ago. "It doesn't seem like Deeds has a plan."

McDonnell carefully avoided alienating independents or angering Democrats, taking care at nearly every appearance to praise Obama, especially for championing charter schools and promoting fatherhood.

Avoiding divisive issues

Although known for a social conservatism deeply informed by his religious faith during his 14 years as a Virginia Beach delegate, during the campaign McDonnell studiously avoided controversial such social issues as abortion, immigration and gun rights, largely neutralizing Democrats' effort to portray him as an extremist with a stealth agenda.

"He's a breed of Republican candidate I've been hoping and looking for that translates Republican values into everyday reality,'' said Michael Steele, Republican National Committee chair. "Bob talks about what people want to know."

Deeds struggled to connect with the Democratic base, at times distancing himself from Obama. Former governor L. Douglas Wilder, a fellow Democrat and the nation's first elected black governor, declined to endorse him, and prominent black businesswoman Sheila Johnson, a Democrat, supported his opponent, even making a TV ad for McDonnell.

Deeds battled McDonnell to within 360 votes in a race for attorney general in 2005.

McDonnell outspent Deeds considerably, receiving unprecedented support from outside groups -- $9 million from the Republican National Committee as well as significant direct TV buys on his behalf from the Republican Governors Association, the National Rifle Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company