Senior Regional Correspondent

If anybody needed further proof, the Virginia General Assembly’s homophobic rejection of a gay man for a judgeship Tuesday confirms beyond doubt that Gov. Robert F. McDonnell has failed in his ostensible effort to steer the state Republican Party away from conservative social causes that sully the Old Dominion’s reputation.

GOP legislative leaders, with McDonnell’s quiet approval, originally backed the appointment of Richmond prosecutor Tracy Thorne-Begland to a low-level city judgeship, according to legislators.

But that support began to collapse late last week when the evangelical Christian enforcers at the Family Foundation decided to make the vote a test case for legislators’ adherence to their reactionary social agenda.

Republican apologists aren’t persuasive when they try to argue that Thorne-Begland was rejected not because he was gay, but because his past support for same-sex marriage and other gay rights meant he couldn’t be trusted to be neutral as a judge.

Richmond legislators of both parties who knew Thorne-Begland said his record showed conclusively that he’d be as fair-minded as any nominee.

Tracy Thorne-Beglan in a December 2005. (ALEXA WELCH EDLUND/AP)

“People that I know, including police officers, judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys . . . they all say he’d be fabulous at the job,” said Del. G. Manoli Loupassi (R-Richmond), one of Thorne-Begland’s principal sponsors.

“A few people were complaining a little because he’s kind of tough. But we’ve got a lot of crime in the city, so we probably need that,” Loupassi said.

McDonnell was hardly a profile in courage during the fight. To his credit, shortly before the vote, his spokesman did issue a statement saying discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is “not acceptable” in state government.

But the text very much left open the possibility that people might rationalize voting against Thorne-Begland on grounds that his support for gay rights was supposedly a blot on his record or aptitude for the job.

Afterward, McDonnell issued another carefully worded statement suggesting that he wasn’t sure whether anti-gay prejudice had contributed to the outcome. Overall, the comments seemed designed mainly to shield McDonnell from public outcry against a decision in which raw bigotry unmistakably played a major role.

Unfortunately, that’s been McDonnell’s pattern since the GOP won control of the General Assembly in November and gave social conservatives a long-awaited chance to advance their goals.

The governor warns fellow Republicans in speeches and statements against the risk of overreaching. But he won’t tangle openly with the Family Foundation or other influential social conservative groups or call them out for prejudice.

Partly because of such timidity, the social conservatives have sabotaged McDonnell’s professed desire to identify the Virginia GOP primarily with low taxes, economic development and other secular goals popular with independent voters. Instead, in a few short months, the state has become a national leader in backward thinking.

Already this year, Virginia attracted widespread mockery when conservatives sought to require women seeking abortions to first undergo vaginal ultrasounds. (A less intrusive law was eventually passed.)

Now the vote against Thorne-Begland puts Virginia in the spotlight for anti-gay prejudice.

“It casts a definite pall on the state,” said Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael N. Herring (D), who is Thorne-Begland’s boss. “It causes people around the country to question Virginia’s ability to be tolerant and to be inclusive.”

There are two ways to interpret McDonnell’s approach. One, favored by liberal activists, is that he’s secretly cheering the social conservatives’ victories even as he keeps some verbal distance. After all, he’s the guy who famously wrote in his 1989 master’s thesis that “government policy should favor married couples over ‘cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators.’ ”

Moreover, as a delegate in 2003, McDonnell said “certain homosexual conduct” could disqualify a person from being a judge because it violates the state’s “crimes against nature” law.

“His rhetoric shifts in order to better his political position. In every opportunity where he’s had an opportunity to act, his actions have been consistent with what he wrote in his thesis,” Claire Gastanaga, legislative counsel for Equality Virginia, said.

Still, I favor a different interpretation. I think McDonnell is genuinely frustrated by the legislators’ actions — but as a matter of political strategy rather than personal conviction. The social crusades trouble him because they interfere with his effort to cement the Virginia GOP’s support among moderates and young people.

McDonnell remembers that he led the party in 2009 to the first of three straight election victories by actively playing down the social agenda. He knows voters of the future, in the younger generation, are much more sympathetic to gay rights than their elders.

In any case, whatever his reasoning, McDonnell’s effort is failing. He has to speak out more strongly and risk some political capital if he’s sincere about defeating prejudice and modernizing the Republicans’ image.

I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM). To read previous columns, go to