Editorial: Lessons from Robert F. McDonnell's victory in Virginia

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

ROBERT F. MCDONNELL'S crushing victory in Virginia's gubernatorial election Tuesday testified to his skills as a politician and to his disciplined, focused and generally positive, issues-based campaign. Mr. McDonnell, the Republican former state attorney general, rose above the toxic partisanship that suffuses electoral politics to conduct himself with civility, dignity and an even temper. Those qualities will be welcome, and politically useful, as he takes office in January as Virginia's 71st governor, and the first Republican to hold the job since 2002.

Mr. McDonnell read the electorate's independent and swing voters correctly by playing down divisive social issues, such as abortion, that had occupied much of his attention during his earlier years as a legislator, and by broadening his appeal to women, minorities and others not always effectively courted by the GOP. Sticking to a refrain of economic renewal amid hard times, he struck a chord with Virginia voters by promising to create jobs and keep taxes low while opposing some of the Obama administration's more expansionist policies and legislation.

Mr. McDonnell's challenge will be to translate his promises into results, specifically on the state's most critical challenge: reinvigorating a sclerotic, aging transportation network. Virginia last raised new revenue for transportation almost a quarter century ago; little wonder that it is running out of cash to build roads. We remain skeptical of the flimsy filigree he passed off as a transportation plan, which rejects any fresh taxes to pay for new roads. But by dint of his victory he has earned the right to show it will work. We'd be delighted if he proves us wrong.

The postmortems on the campaign of State Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, the losing Democratic candidate, will identify his campaign's missteps, misjudgments and missed opportunities. Inevitably, one of those will be his at-first tepid, and later unequivocal support for raising taxes to build roads. This will reinforce the conventional wisdom that it is impossible to win an election in Virginia, and elsewhere, on a platform that includes higher taxes.

Yet it remains true that the two of the most successful, best-respected and most popular of Virginia's governors in the past quarter century -- Gerald L. Baliles (1986-90) and Mark R. Warner (2002-06) -- raised taxes to put the state's finances on a surer footing and invest in the long-term health of its roads, bridges, school and public safety. It's worth noting that Mr. McDonnell's margin of victory in Northern Virginia, where traffic is worst and transportation is the dominant issue, was slimmer than it was statewide. But many Northern Virginians supported him, seeing him as a problem-solver and a pragmatist who could reverse the deterioration of the state's roads, bridges and rails. We hope their faith will be rewarded by the time Mr. McDonnell leaves office in 2014.

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