McDonnell strikes a balance, conservatives rethink support

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 3, 2010; A01

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.

McDonnell's efforts to hold on to conservatives has been complicated by the actions of Cuccinelli, who was also elected in November and has quickly become a national figure through his aggressive efforts to curb the federal government and his unapologetic appeals to "tea party" activists. The more that Cuccinelli's brand of conservatism becomes the standard in the Virginia Republican Party, the harder it is for McDonnell to both appeal to moderates and win over his base.

Willie Deutsch, an activist from Richmond who supported McDonnell and Cuccinelli, said that the governor seems to be embarrassed to be a conservative but that the attorney general embraces it. He said he thinks McDonnell, who has been mentioned as a possible presidential or vice presidential contender, is more concerned about his "future viability."

"I think he's a conservative who isn't willing to fight for his true convictions," Deutsch said.

Not all conservative groups are angry with McDonnell. Three of the state's largest organizations -- the National Rifle Association, the Virginia Society for Human Life and the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation -- have praised him.

Steps on abortion

Olivia Gans, president of the Virginia Society for Human Life, which is affiliated with the National Right to Life Committee, commended McDonnell for accomplishing what he could with a state Senate controlled by Democrats. "The governor is being realistic," she said. "The governor isn't opposed to doing what he made his campaign promise on. But he is taking a look at the larger political realities."

In the case of Planned Parenthood, conservatives had wanted McDonnell to eliminate funding and mounted an aggressive lobbying campaign to persuade him to do so. The Family Foundation of Virginia sent 11,000 e-mails and 5,000 mailers to supporters. The head of the Virginia Christian Alliance met privately with McDonnell's chief of staff to lobby him on the issue. And more than 1,100 people sent letters to the governor's office.

But instead of recommending that all state aid be withdrawn, McDonnell proposed a less controversial move that would keep state money from funding most abortions but would maintain it in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is at risk. The proposal was approved April 21 by a single vote in the Senate.

McDonnell said in an interview that he did not cut all of Planned Parenthood's state funds because it provides other services, such as counseling. He said it would not have been "proper" to cut off those tax dollars.

"The heart and soul of what the concerns that were expressed to me and that I was talking about during the campaign . . . were not providing state money, taxpayer money . . . for abortion services," he said. "That's the heart and soul of what people's concerns were, and I think I've been very faithful to that pledge."

Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation, said that she was pleased that McDonnell proposed withholding state money for abortions but that her group was not satisfied.

"We want him to do more," Cobb said. "And we will continue to ask him."

Patrick M. McSweeney, a former state Republican Party chairman and a standard-bearer of the party's right wing, said he is urging activists to be patient. After all, he said, McDonnell has been in office only a few months.

"There is no sense to attack him now," McSweeney said. "There are a lot of impatient people."

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