McDonnell team rose to challenge in darkest hour
Campaign, candidate remained on message

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."

At the top of the campaign's concerns was what McDonnell wrote about working women, who were a crucial part of McDonnell's strategy to appeal not only to exurban independents but also to Northern Virginia moderates.

At the same time, McDonnell enjoyed deep support among conservatives outside of Northern Virginia. The trick was to disavow the more problematic parts of the thesis without alienating that base. That predicament encapsulated a central tension of McDonnell's campaign: how to attract crucial votes from the middle without alienating conservatives who had backed him for years.

"Bob was in a box," said a Republican strategist from Northern Virginia who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "The thesis was solely an inside-the-Beltway issue. He couldn't disavow the thing because the right would have abandoned him. They would have said, 'What do you mean you don't support these things?' "

McDonnell decided to disavow anything that suggested opposition to women entering the workplace. He emphasized a pledge to hire and fire only on the basis of merit and not gender or sexual orientation. And he planned to make clear that he still believed many of the ideas in the thesis, notably that family is the "bedrock" of society and that government cannot step in and do what is rightfully the role of families.

Via cellphone to his advisers, McDonnell made those decisions that Saturday, Aug. 29, while making his way through Northern Virginia. He also decided to limit his response to a written statement and to avoid a potential stumble over detailed passages. And he proceeded to his final campaign stop in Woodbridge, where he delivered his message of job creation and problem-solving to a crowd of hundreds. He showed up at Gar-Field High School 90 minutes late and visibly weary.

After The Post story was published, the Deeds campaign seized on it. State and national media began writing about it. Even Republicans, including Gillespie, were reporting privately to the campaign that their wives were appalled by the document. But the McDonnell team had formulated a longer-term strategy.

Handling the media

First, McDonnell would hold a telephone conference call with the media that didn't end until there were no more questions to ask. It was a grueling, sometimes combative exchange with reporters, but his advisers said it showed McDonnell at his best, patiently answering questions and turning the discussion back to his own themes as often as he could.

"It took the entire print press corps, the newspapers in the rest of the state, outside of The Washington Post, and made it about a two- to three-day story with them," Cox said. "We understood that it would be part of every story. But it becomes a process sentence, as in, 'The thesis rocked the race, and the McDonnell campaign regained their footing.' "

A second part of the strategy was to make television ads to control any damage the thesis would do with voters.

Where discipline became key was as the crisis dragged on. More than a week after it started, questions about the thesis so dominated an appearance with Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) that the candidate's handlers abruptly called a halt to the event.

"Is this what it's going to be like for the rest of the campaign?" Cox recalled the candidate asking him that day. Cox's response: "If we stay on message and retain our message discipline, this, too, will pass."

Perhaps the lowest point came later in September, when public polls showed McDonnell's lead narrowing to the mid-single digits. What the polls didn't yet measure was that Deeds would focus on the thesis to the exclusion of telling voters about himself and that they would become turned off by the negativity.

And what the polls began showing soon thereafter was that the strategy devised via cellphone in the cramped rear bedroom of the RV had worked.

Staff writer Anita Kumar contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company