Correction to This Article
In articles on Nov. 4 and 5, remarks by former Virginia governor George Allen were incorrectly attributed to his 1994 inaugural address. It was at that year's state Republican convention that Allen said he would knock Democrats' "soft teeth down their whiny throats."

Can McDonnell, Va. GOP keep straddling the center-right?

Virginians went to the polls Tuesday for an off-year election with races for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and the state House of Delegates, and they handed the Republicans their first governor's race win since 1997 and first House gains since 2001.
By Amy Gardner and Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 4, 2009

With his overwhelming victory, Robert F. McDonnell is being extolled as a new model for Republican success: a traditionally conservative candidate who won a swing state by focusing almost exclusively on jobs, transportation and other kitchen table issues. The test now is whether he can build a similar model for governing by catering to the middle's pragmatism without alienating the GOP activists who were crucial to his win.

If McDonnell is able to please both sides, he will help rebrand Republicans as a can-do party that understands how people live, much as U.S. Sen. Mark Warner did for Democrats when he was governor earlier this decade. But if he fails, the rift between the party's center and right probably will grow wider, making it more difficult for other Republicans to win.

"Oh, it's fragile," said Republican Tom Davis, a former congressman from Fairfax County who advised McDonnell on how to appeal to moderate Northern Virginia voters. "When we stay united and broad-based, we win. When we become narrow and divisive, we lose. Politics is a game of addition. It's not a game of subtraction."

McDonnell banked on that fact from the earliest days of his campaign, when he began targeting Northern Virginia moderates. He talked about jobs and the economy, about untangling traffic and improving schools. He met repeatedly with minority groups, and he avoided the more divisive issues that have occupied his party's right wing.

Solid conservative record

But McDonnell began the campaign with a record of conservatism acquired during 17 years in the state legislature and as attorney general. A graduate of the conservative Regent University in Virginia Beach and a friend of religious broadcaster Pat Robertson's, McDonnell has made abortion restrictions, the prohibition of same-sex marriage and a tough stance on illegal immigrants top priorities at various times in his career. As a result, he has a strong base of support among grass-roots conservatives, allowing him to win the Republican nomination without challenge last spring and to focus on courting the middle during the general election campaign.

Reconciling those two aspects of McDonnell's candidacy will be a central tension of his term as governor. Conservative activists are already pressuring McDonnell. The group Virginians for Life sent out an e-mail urging supporters to push McDonnell to defund the abortion provider Planned Parenthood.

Last week, at the Richmond Convention Center, Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia, told 1,300 supporters that McDonnell must reverse Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's decision last year to ban state police chaplains from using Christian prayer at department-sanctioned events.

In an interview, Cobb said that although McDonnell campaigned as a moderate, her members came out in force for him with an understanding of his record and a belief that he will remain true to conservative priorities.

"The concern is, is he going to deliver on issues that have always been important to him based on his record?" Cobb said. "I think you need to look at him in terms of what he has said to the faith community, what he has said to churches, answers he has given on voter guides. It doesn't have to be his primary focus for people to believe he will support our priorities. He has always been seen as a champion of the family cause."

In the final days of the campaign, as his lead widened in polls, McDonnell more often declared conservative intentions. He spoke daily of limited government, low taxes and free enterprise. He said he would "stand up strong" against same-sex marriage and to "protect the unborn." He told conservative talk-radio host Laura Ingraham that it has been his position "all along" to use the veto to block state funding of Planned Parenthood.

During his victory speech Tuesday night, McDonnell returned to the moderation that dominated most of his campaign, a stark contrast to the confrontational styles of Virginia's last two Republican governors: George Allen, who promised at his 1994 inauguration to knock Democrats' "soft teeth down their whiny throats," and James S. Gilmore III, who declared Virginia "free at last!" in 1999 when Republicans took over the General Assembly on his watch.

"For those of you who didn't support me, I say, give me a chance to earn your trust, to work with you for the betterment of the Commonwealth of Virginia," McDonnell said.

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