The GOP's Ed Gillespie on election lessons from Virginia

Virginia Gov.-elect Bob McDonnell at his victory party.
Virginia Gov.-elect Bob McDonnell at his victory party. (Steve Helber/associated Press)
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By Ed Gillespie
Thursday, November 5, 2009

After losing Virginia's governorship for the first time in eight years, some Democrats are trying to console themselves that Virginia is at its core a "red" state. This ignores not only that they won back-to-back governorships but also that Democrats defeated a sitting senator in 2006, took control of the state Senate in 2007 and won an open Republican Senate seat and three House seats in 2008 while carrying Virginia's electoral college votes for the first time since 1964.

Some in the White House are trying to deflect blame for the defeat by saying that Sen. Creigh Deeds lost because he didn't embrace the president and his policies. This ignores how much the Obama administration's support for cap-and-trade, organized labor's agenda, government-run health care and rampant spending hurt the Democratic nominee with independent voters.

And some Republicans are concluding that the Virginia governor's race was a referendum on President Obama and that we can make major gains in next year's midterms simply by running against him. This ignores the fact that while Gov.-elect Bob McDonnell benefited from voter concerns over Congress and the White House, he ran on a positive, detailed policy agenda.

There are lessons in the Virginia governor's race for both parties, but Republicans nationally would do well to take a few pages from McDonnell's playbook. Here are five:

-- Convert conservative principles into practical policies -- and finish the sentence. All year, McDonnell laid out a steady stream of policy initiatives rooted in a commitment to lower taxes, less regulation and innovation. Too often, however, Republicans don't "finish the sentence" and remind voters outside our base why such conservative policies are better. McDonnell's campaign attracted crucial independent voters by focusing on the benefits of his policies: better elementary schools, more college degrees, less time stuck in traffic, more affordable gas and electricity, and most important, jobs, jobs, jobs.

By Tuesday, voters gave McDonnell a sizable lead when it came to handling every critical issue facing Virginians, and he can now claim a mandate for his agenda.

-- Run inclusive campaigns. When The Post reported on what is now the most famous graduate thesis in America and Democrats attacked McDonnell as "anti-working-women," a broad grass-roots network of "Women for McDonnell" was in place to respond through e-mails, Facebook postings and conversations with friends and co-workers, making sure Virginians knew the Republican nominee's record of promoting women.

Instead of indulging in the anti-immigration rhetoric of past Republican campaigns, McDonnell appealed to the growing Hispanic and Asian American enclaves of Northern Virginia, where his message of entrepreneurship, educational opportunity and strong families resonated.

As a member of the House of Delegates, McDonnell worked with community leaders to narrow the gap in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine. As attorney general, he rallied the commonwealth's law firms to donate to food banks, forging relationships in traditionally non-Republican areas. During the campaign he worked to earn the endorsement of lifelong Democrat Sheila Johnson and appealed to former Democratic governor Douglas Wilder, who ended up withholding support for Deeds.

McDonnell's performance among female and minority voters contributed to the biggest victory margin for any governor since Virginia became a two-party state.

-- Use language voters want from their elected leaders. When asked to comment on the president campaigning in Virginia for his opponent, McDonnell responded that "the president of the United States is always welcome in the commonwealth." In addition to citing the litany of issues on which they disagreed, he noted his agreement with the president's support for charter schools.

When a GOP candidate for the House of Delegates referred to the Obama administration as "domestic terrorism at its worst" and said that if Republicans fell short at the ballot box, we might have to resort to "the bullet box," McDonnell made clear that her comments were not representative of Republicans he'd been talking with and that he would not campaign for or with her.

McDonnell was critical of his opponent's policies, but Deeds's attacks frequently were harshly personal. Voters expect the former but reject the latter.

-- Match the left's use of technology. The Obama campaign blazed electronic trails in 2008, and the McDonnell campaign sought to adapt to the new contours, beginning with an online announcement of his candidacy and a message to "Text VA to GOBOB" on banners and yard signs. Between social media networks, texting and e-mail, the campaign was regularly in direct contact with more than 200,000 voters -- impressive, especially given the low turnout on Election Day. In addition to the campaign's efforts, the Republican Party of Virginia did an excellent job of driving coverage and perceptions of Deeds through creative Web videos.

-- Back strong candidates. Elections are ultimately choices between two people vying for the same job. Bob McDonnell was, hands-down, the superior candidate. Virginia's next governor proved to be a principled, disciplined, energetic, idea-driven, articulate and personable candidate -- characteristics that will serve the commonwealth well over the next four years.

The writer, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, volunteered as general chairman of the Bob McDonnell for Governor Campaign.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company