McDonnell overcame challenge to win Va. governor race

Gov.-elect Robert F. McDonnell was congratulated by family members Tuesday night after a news conference at the state Capitol in Richmond.
Gov.-elect Robert F. McDonnell was congratulated by family members Tuesday night after a news conference at the state Capitol in Richmond. (Jonathan Newton/the Washington Post)
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By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 5, 2009

In a 15-hour RV swing through Northern Virginia in late August, there wasn't really time for Robert F. McDonnell, the Republican candidate for governor, to stop along a residential street in West Springfield.

But an urgent memo awaited from his senior advisers in Richmond, and the RV was too bumpy for McDonnell to read on the road. A 20-year-old academic thesis -- in which McDonnell had presented a deeply conservative vision of government and criticized working women, single mothers and homosexuals -- had surfaced. McDonnell needed to sign off on the campaign's response, and then he needed to race to a rally with Latinos in Woodbridge, where hundreds of supporters awaited.

That moment brought the greatest test of McDonnell's disciplined campaign. Would he be able to maintain his focus on jobs and road improvements? Or would he veer off message to a discussion about his social conservatism, a topic he had sought to avoid for most of the year?

The way the campaign responded -- a disciplined response and a quick return to the practical issues that were the basis of his campaign -- was indicative of how McDonnell cruised to a resounding 17-percentage point win Tuesday over Democrat R. Creigh Deeds.

"It was a hurdle that would need to be overcome," said Attorney General William C. Mims, a close friend and political ally of McDonnell. "I knew that if the campaign could stay on message and could continue to focus on positive proposals and on an impressive array of policy initiatives, that things would turn out okay."

McDonnell was upset that the thesis would dominate weeks of the campaign. To some, his social conservatism was his potential downfall. There was an irrefutable record that included attendance at Regent University in Virginia Beach, a friendship with religious broadcaster Pat Robertson and advocacy in public office of abortion restrictions, tuition vouchers for private school students and covenant marriage.

To McDonnell, the focus on his conservative views was an attempt by Democratic opponents to unfairly obscure a much broader set of accomplishments as a state legislator and as attorney general in such areas as criminal justice and mental health reform. The thesis only heightened his frustration, aides said.

"I know you don't like this," campaign manager Phil Cox recalled telling the candidate via cellphone the day of the RV tour. "I know you think this is unfair. But this is the reality we are in, and you have an opportunity to be strong, to be disciplined, to be cool, calm and collected, and those are all traits that people are looking for in their next governor. So you have an opportunity to demonstrate those traits over the next couple of weeks."

Advisers hunker down

The Washington Post learned of the thesis in a mid-August interview with McDonnell and obtained a copy from Regent's library, where it is publicly available. The Post planned to publish a story on the thesis Sunday, Aug. 30. On Thursday, Aug. 27, the paper provided a copy of the thesis to the McDonnell campaign and asked for comment.

"I won't forget that day for the rest of my life," said McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin.

At least four McDonnell advisers hunkered down that Thursday night and all of Friday, Saturday and Sunday to deal with potential problems: Cox; Martin; Jasen Eige, the research director; and Ed Gillespie, the campaign chairman. Eige took a first pass through the document with a highlight pen and orange index stickers. Then the group divided the paper into sections, scouring them for potentially damaging passages.

"There were certainly a lot of problem areas," Cox said with a laugh. "We were reading the footnotes to try to determine how it was framed. It was such a big document that it took some time. We said, 'Look, we are going to have to deal with this.' We recognized immediately that it was going to be a part of the campaign from that day through to Election Day."

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