McDonnell strikes a balance, conservatives rethink support

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 3, 2010

RICHMOND -- After eight years of Democratic rule, Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell was seen by conservatives as a political savior, someone who would restore the state's right-leaning policies and traditions. But less than four months into his term, many conservatives have grown disenchanted, even as he has made direct appeals to causes they care about.

Two recent high-profile efforts to cater to parts of the conservative coalition -- declaring April as Confederate History Month and slashing funding for Planned Parenthood -- only further agitated many.

McDonnell's failure to mention slavery in the Confederate proclamation led to a cycle of national ridicule followed by an apology from the governor, dampening whatever boost he might have gotten. And although McDonnell removed most state funding from Planned Parenthood, he stopped short of his campaign promise to cut all funds from the nation's largest abortion provider, leaving many social conservatives feeling let down.

"Bob McDonnell is a typical politician trying to please both sides of the aisle and hopes that you and I are naive enough to buy it," read an e-mail sent to supporters of Virginians for Life last month that also called the governor "gutless."

The disappointments started before McDonnell moved into the governor's mansion, when he began to pick a team of top advisers that included mostly moderates.

Since then, he has angered conservatives by issuing a directive outlawing discrimination in the state workforce, including on the basis of sexual orientation -- a move that was designed to ease concerns about intolerance after Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) had advised public colleges that they could not legally prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Some conservatives also saw the governor's directive as legitimizing homosexuality.

McDonnell also upset some in his party by endorsing Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in his Senate primary battle against a more conservative opponent, a sign to many conservatives that he was no longer one of them.

"He clearly cannot be trusted," said Joe Glover, a Republican activist who lives near Lynchburg and heads the Family Policy Network, a Christian advocacy group. "He's clearly not the conservative he would like conservatives to think he is. I will not make the mistake of voting for Bob McDonnell again."

Conservative successes

McDonnell's staff disputed the idea that he has fallen out of favor with some conservatives, saying that he has broad support across the state. They said McDonnell has done more to advance conservatism in Virginia than any other governor in his first year since George Allen (R) in 1994. They listed 10 accomplishments, including balancing the budget without raising taxes, expanding charter schools and signing several bills into law that preserve gun rights.

"The governor reduced spending, balanced the budget without a tax increase and made Virginia a more attractive location for job creators," said his spokesman, Tucker Martin. "That's results-oriented conservatism in action."

Until McDonnell reversed the policy Wednesday, conservatives had also been upset that he had not undone a ban that prevented Virginia State Police troopers from referring to Jesus Christ in public prayers. The state police superintendent directed police chaplains to stop the practice in 2008 in response to a federal appeals court ruling that a Fredericksburg City Council member could not pray "in Jesus's name" during meetings because the opening invocation is considered government speech.

"The governor does not believe the state should tell chaplains of any faith how to pray," Martin said.

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