Virginia is as polarized as anywhere else these days, but there’s one topic that finds people in striking agreement: the political future of former governor Robert F. McDonnell.
They agree he shouldn’t have one.
In a new Washington Post poll, two-thirds of Virginia adults surveyed say McDonnell should not run for elected office again. Even among Republicans polled, 60 percent say the former governor should stick to private life.
The results are another reminder of McDonnell’s steep fall from grace, even after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his public corruption conviction earlier this year.
After taking office as governor in 2010, McDonnell was a popular chief executive with national aspirations. A devout former Army reservist, he was a leader in the Republican Governors Association and had presidential buzz.
But McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were indicted in 2014 on charges that they took $177,000 in gifts and loans from a business executive in return for helping promote his company’s dietary supplement. The McDonnells were convicted, and the former governor was sentenced to two years in prison.
The McDonnells remained free on appeal, and on June 27, the Supreme Court overturned the former governor’s conviction, ruling that simply talking to another official or setting up an event did not constitute taking an“official action” to benefit someone, as required under public corruption law.
Federal prosecutors are expected to decide this month whether to retry McDonnell, 62, under tougher standards laid out by the Supreme Court decision. On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of Virginia members of Congress, former Virginia attorneys general and attorneys general from other states wrote letters asking the Justice Department not to move forward with a new prosecution.
“[T]he McDonnell family has suffered greatly over the past three years, both financially and emotionally. Governor Terry McAuliffe so aptly explained last month when asked if DOJ should bring another case, ‘It is time to move on. The man has paid the price.’ We agree completely,” wrote the congressional group. The letter was signed by Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Virginia Beach) as well as Rep. Don Beyer (D-Alexandria) and five others.
The public officials are at odds with many of their constituents. In The Post’s poll, a plurality of 47 percent polled say the Supreme Court was wrong to overturn McDonnell’s conviction; 38 percent agree with the decision. Not surprisingly, 53 percent of self-identified Democrats said McDonnell’s corruption conviction should have been upheld, but 34 percent of Republicans did, as well. Aside from partisan divisions, the results were largely consistent across the state, by region and demographics.
A harsher stance from average Virginians “doesn’t surprise me,” said Bob Holsworth, a former political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. The Supreme Court’s decision to set aside the verdict “didn’t change the basic sense that something was wrong here, whether or not it was illegal,” Holsworth said.
Because of the case, the Virginia General Assembly tightened its public ethics laws, limiting state lawmakers and candidates from receiving gifts of $100 or more from lobbyists. The Post’s poll finds widespread support for that action, with 61 percent of Virginians endorsing it as the right amount of restrictions. Twenty-three percent said the law doesn’t go far enough.
McDonnell, through a spokesman, declined to comment. In the months since his conviction, he has been at home in Virginia Beach — active with his four grandchildren; working with his sister in The McDonnell Group, a consulting firm that works on business development and investor recruitment; and doing charity work, according to a close associate.
Although he spent 22 years in public office, including as a state delegate and as Virginia attorney general, McDonnell has made no visible forays back into politics. In The Post’s poll, majorities of surveyed Virginians in every region and demographic group say he should not run again — with opposition peaking at 76 percent among liberals and 75 percent in the Washington suburbs.
But stranger things have happened.
“I think all the ingredients for a phoenix rising exist,” said Joe Morrissey, a former Democratic state delegate from Richmond who knows all about second and third acts in politics.
Morrissey resigned as delegate in 2014 when he was convicted of a misdemeanor charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor for an alleged sexual relationship with his 17-year-old receptionist. The two are now married and have two children. Morrissey won reelection to the General Assembly, then stepped aside and is running for mayor of Richmond.
“I believe people put a tremendous value in redemption,” he said, adding that he contributed to McDonnell’s defense fund. “Peoples’ views change. . . . Who am I? But I would encourage him to run again.”
The Post’s poll was conducted Aug. 11-14 among a random sample of 1,002 Virginia adults interviewed on cellular and landline phones. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus four percentage points for overall results.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.