McDonnell, elected as governor of the Commonwealth in 2009, is currently the vice chairman of the Republican Governors Association — serving under Perry.
Perry would vacate his chairmanhip if he were to pursue the presidency and McDonnell would step into a job that has emerged as a powerful perch and potential springboard into national politics in recent years.
While no McDonnell supporters wanted to speak on the record about the opportunity such a move would afford the governor, one ally acknowledged that it would “continue McDonnell’s steady move into the national political arena” and added: “The greater exposure should just mean a greater opportunity for him to play a larger role in the current political debate, and, potentially, open up future doors as well.”
McDonnell swept into office in 2009 with talk of a potential national candidacy nipping at his heels.
After all, he had just run-up a massive victory over then state Sen. Creigh Deeds (D) in a swing state less than a year after President Obama had carried it in 2008.
McDonnell’s ability in that race to stay focused on a jobs and economy message — amid attempts to turn the race into a debate over his social views — was seen as a blueprint for Republicans in competitive states going forward.
In a sign of how highly regarded he was after that victory, McDonnell was chosen by the national party to give the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union speech — a performance that drew generally favorable if not effusive reviews.
Then several things — some in McDonnell’s control, others not — conspired to take some of the shine off of his rising star.
First, McDonnell decided to revive a past controversy in the Commonwealth by declaring April 2010 “Confederate History Month”. (The past two governors — both Democrats — had decided not to do so.) And, McDonnell doubled down on the controversy by not condemning slavery in the proclamation issued to celebrate the month.
With negative national attention mounting over the story, McDonnell quickly reversed course — describing the exclusion of a mention of slavery as a “major omission” and amending the proclamation to include it.
That unforced error slowed the already-active “McDonnell for vice president” chatter.
And then along came New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie who, like McDonnell, was elected in the fall of 2009.
Though McDonnell was generally regarded as the candidate with more upside — thank you Jay Bilas! — it was Christie who, over the past two years, has become the bigger national star.
Christie’s profile has risen so high that he continues to have to beat back talk that he will enter the 2012 presidential race amid polling that suggests he would be a major factor if not the frontrunner.
Christie’s rise has been fueled by his confrontational, take-no-prisoners style, which has won him a major following in national Republican circles. McDonell, all southern gentility and politeness, amounts to the stylistic polar opposite of Christie.
But, while the national media may have taken its collective eye off of McDonnell, he has emerged as an exception to the current political rule: he is a popular governor at a time of budget cuts and economic anxiety.
A whopping 62 percent of respondents approved of the job McDonnell was doing while just 26 percent disapproved in a May Washington Post poll — numbers that put him in the neighborhood of immensely popular Virginia Sen. Mark Warner (D).
McDonnell’s popularity is widely ascribed to his work to make good on his campaign promises — from helping to relieve traffic problems in northern Virginia to fostering job growth statewide. McDonnell also eliminated $4 billion from the Commonwealth’s budget without raising taxes. It hasn’t all been rosy, however, as one of McDonnell’s main priorities — the privatization of ABC stores — was rebuked by the legislature.
“It’s incredible what he’s accomplished in less than two years,” said Phil Musser, a former executive director at the RGA. “That, more than anything else, will continue to garner him national attention and respect and a 62 percent approval rating at home.”
McDonnell needs only look back to the last chairman of the RGA for evidence of the job’s elevating powers.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour took over as RGA chair after former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford went “hiking on the Appalachian Trail” and quickly turned it into the premier political committee in Washington — raising tens of millions of dollars and playing a kingmaker role in races across the country.
Barbour also used the post to explore the possibility of running for president, a prospect he ultimately passed on earlier this spring.
McDonnell will almost certainly do the same — capitalizing on the platform of the RGA chairmanship to build up his relationships with national donors, appear more often on cable chat shows and inject himself into the national political dialogue.
“If he succeeds, and Republicans win the presidency then he’s prime [Republican National Committee] chair material for a new President,” said one veteran Virginia GOP operative.
It’s not all upside for McDonnell, the source added, noting that if the RGA underperforms on either the money or results fronts, the Virginia governor will be blamed.
And, thinking a bit further down the road, if Perry was to wind up as the Republican presidential nominee it would virtually nix any designs McDonnell has on the vice presidency as the party would likely be loathe to put forward a ticket featuring two white southern governors.
Still, a Perry bid would create a major opportunity for McDonnell to re-emerge in the national spotlight — a prospect that would further the ambitions he might have for higher office.