Virginians share lesson learned: GOP in power not so bad

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Saturday, October 30, 2010; 12:12 AM

President Obama and other Democrats are going around the country making the same argument as party leaders made in Virginia last year: If you elect Republicans, they'll drive the car right back into the ditch.

Virginians overwhelmingly ignored that advice, and a year later many say they have few regrets and are generally pleased - if not ecstatic - about what Republicans have done.

Voters, including some who didn't back him, credited Gov. Robert F. McDonnell with working hard and engineering deep budget cuts from a generally fractious General Assembly with relatively little heartache. The result of those efforts was a narrow surplus by the end of the fiscal year, achieved through bipartisan action and without the tax increase that Gov. Timothy M. Kaine proposed before leaving office.

"This state hasn't gone backwards," said Steven Herborn, 55, of Chesapeake. He has supported candidates in both parties over the years but wants Republicans to take over Congress next week.

"Nothing bad has happened," he said. "The schools are no worse. The roads? We've always had a problem with the roads in Virginia."

Despite dire warnings from Democrats about what will happen if Republicans take over, the message doesn't seem to be sticking. In a Washington Post-ABC poll this month, 50 percent of Democrats said a GOP Congress would be "a bad thing."

And more than a dozen independent voters in Virginia who backed Obama in 2008 said in interviews that they didn't think the state had moved backward under McDonnell and Republicans in the past year. A few who didn't vote for him still gave him credit for working hard and focusing on the right priorities.

McDonnell is "making an effort," said Charlottesville retiree Ross Crebbs, who voted for the governor's opponent, state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D). "That's what he was elected to do. He's visible. He's trying. And, agree or disagree with him, we can see it."

The right direction

A handful of polls taken in recent months also suggest that Virginians are broadly satisfied with McDonnell's performance and the state of their state. One poll released this summer showed that only 12 percent of Virginians thought the governor was doing a poor job. And the polls show that more Virginians think their state is headed in the right direction than in the wrong direction - the reverse of what voters say about the nation.

But Virginians don't think the state has been driven into a ditch, nor do they feel that all that much has changed in their own lives. They remain deeply pessimistic about the direction of the state and country and are convinced that both parties have become corrupted by money and are addicted to partisan infighting.

Those interviewed also said they're leery of some of the culture war issues that have accompanied the return of the Republicans.

In April, McDonnell issued a proclamation in honor of Confederate History month, a gesture that had been halted under Democrats and one that remains divisive in a state that still suffers the wounds of a war fought largely on its soil.

McDonnell attempted to rectify what he now views as a misstep with a speech last month calling for racial conciliation. He has promised that he will not reissue the proclamation next year.

Almost all voters were also aware of the actions of Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, a tea party favorite who has angered some people by using his office to champion conservative causes. Cuccinelli has sued the federal government over health-care reform and the University of Virginia, in hopes of showing that a global-warming researcher is a fraud.

In March, Cuccinelli instructed Virginia colleges to remove protections for gay students and employees from their nondiscrimination policies, sparking a conversation about gay rights that McDonnell had largely avoided during his campaign and his first months in office.

William Lauzonis, 75, a retired precious-metal manufacturer from Richmond, said that Cuccinelli is "nuts" to doubt the science behind global warming and has been unfairly targeting U-Va. "He's been fiddling around with taxpayers' money," Lauzonis said.

Only Virginia and New Jersey held elections in 2009, and both states elected Republican governors after being firmly behind Obama in 2008. The GOP has since pointed to McDonnell and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as examples of new kinds of Republicans and also of what voters could expect if they return the party to power in Washington.

"I hope that what I've been able to do, in some small measure . . . will at least create confidence that if people elect Republicans at the federal level, that they're going to get similar good results," said McDonnell, who has made campaign stops in New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Illinois and Pennsylvania this week.

'He's doing a good job'

Many Virginians are giving McDonnell credit for trying hard against the long odds of a tough economy and battered state revenues.

"He's doing a good job," said Ed Brazil, 62, a food broker from Prince Edward County. "He's taken a conservative approach. He's trying to rein in spending. And he's got ideas."

Lee Brown, 56, a computer programmer from Gloucester, backed Deeds a year ago. A year later, he's decided that McDonnell seems like an "adult."

"I'm not 100 percent in agreement with him, and I don't necessarily regret not voting for him," Brown said. "But he's been pretty reasonable. My impression is he's done fairly well with the budget."

The picture is not all good news for the GOP: The political system has become dysfunctional at all levels, many voters said, and McDonnell's Republicans are no better than Obama's Democrats.

"It'll all stay the same up there - the crookedness, the underhandedness, the secrecy," said Crebbs, the retiree from Charlottesville. "We're sinking like the Titanic, and the people who run this country are so busy putting money in their own pockets they can't see the direction we're going."

McDonnell has been critical of rising federal spending, but over Republican objections, he accepted federal education and Medicaid dollars that congressional Democrats approved in August.

He and the General Assembly agreed to balance the state budget in part by borrowing $620 million from the state's pension fund.

Both moves have given rise to some complaints that he engages in the same kind of budget trickery that has angered voters at a national level.

"I think he's a hypocrite for that," said Betty Ward, 67, a retired teacher from Roanoke. "I don't think things are working now. The lobbyists, the money is in control. And the politicians say whatever they think people want to hear to get elected."

'Rhetoric is high'

McDonnell said he's aware of such voter distrust. "I know there's some of that sentiment out there, about people at every level of government," he said. "It's exacerbated when the rhetoric is high and the economy is hurting, and you've got both of those going on now at the national level. The better I do . . . the more I hope people will believe we're on the right track."

McDonnell has at times been overshadowed by Cuccinelli, whose combative tone fits more neatly with the tone of this year's elections.

Mary Kay Rieg, 60, a retired federal employee from Alexandria, said Cuccinelli has been rightly pushing back against Democrats run amok. Rieg enthusiastically backed Obama in 2008, hoping he'd bring a new brand of post-partisan politics to Washington.

She's been so disappointed that next week she plans to vote against Rep. James P. Moran Jr., a 10-term incumbent, for the first time and cast her ballot for Republican Patrick Murray instead.

"President Obama came in under very special circumstances, and those circumstances called for restraint," she said. "And Democrats have not shown restraint."

But Rieg said McDonnell and Republicans should know they haven't fully convinced her that they should take power.

"I'll tell you this," she said. "If it happens that Republicans control everything, I'll be watching them like a hawk."

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