GLEN ALLEN, VA. — In a rare public appearance, former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell on Tuesday evening joined a who’s who of establishment Republicans, including 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney and U.S. Senate candidate Ed Gillespie.
As McDonnell awaits trial on federal charges that he and his wife traded the prestige of the governor’s office for money and gifts, he reflected on his fate, Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s stunning primary loss last week, Gillespie’s chances against Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and the commonwealth budget crisis.
Supporters lined up to get a handshake or hug from McDonnell during former lieutenant governor Bill Bolling’s annual picnic behind an office building in suburban Richmond.
“I’m doing really good,” McDonnell told reporters. “I’ve got immense support from family and friends. It’s been an extraordinarily difficult time for me and my family. I’ve been in public life for 37 years, never experienced anything like this where people have questioned my integrity. I have immense faith in God and the justice system, and we’ll get through this.”
Turning to politics, McDonnell called Cantor a “dear, personal friend” and said his loss to a relative unknown, Dave Brat, will be detrimental to Virginia and shows that there are all kinds of Republicans.
“It shows that we’re not a monolithic group, that we have a broad coalition of conservatives, of libertarians, of moderates that all believe in the basic message of fiscal responsibility and limited government, and sometimes people from different parts of that coalition make a stronger case during an election cycle,” he said.
Earlier, Bolling noted that tea party-backed Brat was invited to the event but had a scheduling conflict. This year’s “Burgers with Bill,” traditionally a fundraiser, was paid for by the Virginia Mainstream Project, a group Bolling formed to recruit like-minded Republicans to run for state office.
Bolling was outmaneuvered for the party’s nomination for governor in 2012 by then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, who many in the party considered too extreme for Virginia voters.
Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman, easily secured the GOP nomination this month by courting the tea party and grass-roots activists. He chaired McDonnell’s 2009 campaign for governor.
“I think it’s going to be a very, very competitive race,” McDonnell said. “Ed Gillespie’s a remarkable human being. I’ve appointed he and his wife to boards. I know their heart, and I know their service.”
Romney also endorsed Gillespie, who he said dropped everything to work for his 2012 presidential bid, and slammed Warner over taxes, Obamacare and foreign policy.
“Mark Warner, while he’s a fine fellow I’m sure, . . . but Mark Warner supports a team in Washington and an administration that hasn’t been entirely honest with us, and hasn’t been fully — how would I say this? — just not as competent as you’d like to see,” Romney said.
Gillespie made a pitch for doubling the nation’s economic rate, although he provided no specifics. “We know that our policies will create jobs and raise take-home pay and hold down health-care costs and reduce energy prices,” he said, adding later: “Instead of having a blank check for President Obama, we can have a check on President Obama.”
Finally, McDonnell weighed in on a budget impasse that has dominated debate in Richmond for the past year.
“The majority of Republicans understand that long term, without dramatic reform, there is a crushing budget impact of Medicaid expansion unless these reforms are put in place first. When you’ve already got a billion-dollar deficit, as we do now in Virginia, it’s not the time to make the biggest government expansion in modern Virginia history,” he said.