Last summer, after Virginia state Senator Creigh Deeds crushed his rivals in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, a veteran Democratic consultant named Lowell Feld offered the Deeds campaign some advice. Feld told me he urged Deeds to immediately launch an attack campaign painting his Republican rival, state Attorney General Bob McDonnell, as “Pat Robertson’s Manchurian Candidate.” If Deeds wavered, Feld was convinced McDonnell could make inroads in the liberal-leaning but fiercely competitive suburbs of Northern Virginia.
“Virginian independents vote on who holds a drink better, who can converse with a wide variety of people in a clever way,” says Professor Larry Sabato. “So whoever passes what I call the suburban cocktail party test usually wins. And McDonnell passes with flying colors.”
While many Republican candidates pander to the Christian right to win elections in evangelical-heavy states, McDonnell has done exactly the opposite in the Virginia governor’s race: He's appealing to the sensibilities of comparatively moderate Northern Virginian voters. But that’s not because he’s a moderate. In fact, McDonnell is a consummate culture warrior; a graduate of Pat Robertson’s law school, Regent University, and a personal friend of the far-right televangelist, who donated heavily to his past campaigns.
During an appearance on Robertson’s 700 Club in 2007, McDonnell said his four years at Regent “gave me the insight about what our Founders believed about government and about their view of the Constitution that I’ve been carrying with me on the job today.”
Instead of following Feld’s advice, the Deeds campaign spent the dog days of June and July raising money. By the time Deeds engaged McDonnell on abortion in August—the Republican has opposed the practice even in cases of rape and incest—the smooth-talking, telegenic McDonnell was already scoring big with swing voters on transportation and economic issues. McDonnell’s success has instilled the national GOP with newfound confidence, prompting Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele to hail him as the “flower of new leadership” and the vanguard of a “Republican renaissance.”
Deeds appeared to gain new life when McDonnell’s damaging graduate thesis surfaced in early September. The candidate himself, perhaps in a moment of pride, mentioned it in passing to a Washington Post reporter, a foolish mistake that sparked her curiosity. Voters were thus exposed to an impassioned manifesto that read like a manual for implementing theocracy. In the 93-page document, McDonnell denounced working women as “detrimental for the family,” called on the government to favor married couples over “cohabitators, homosexuals, or fornicators,” and attacked a Supreme Court decision legalizing birth control for married couples. [W]hen the exercise of liberty takes the shape of pornography, drug abuse, or homosexuality,” McDonnell proclaimed, “the government must restrain, punish, and deter.”
Despite a concerted effort by the Deeds campaign to present McDonnell’s thesis as his “blueprint for governing,” McDonnell remains the clear favorite to win. With only two weeks until Election Day, he is leading by as much as seven points in most recent polls.
Unlike many Christian-right candidates, his image is easily relatable to suburban independents. During his appearance on the 700 Club, McDonnell revealed himself as a stealth candidate who learned through Robertson’s mentoring to conceal his hard-right ideology behind a moderate veneer. “[Regent] taught me the real importance of being a Christian elected official,” he remarked. “It’s not just what you say but it’s also the style of how you say it and acting in a degree of civility…without compromising principle.”
According to Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, McDonnell has successfully exploited his genial image to outmaneuver Deeds in the state’s key swing districts. “Virginian independents vote on who holds a drink better, who can converse with a wide variety of people in a clever way,” Sabato told me. “So whoever passes what I call the suburban cocktail party test usually wins. And McDonnell passes with flying colors.”
For his part, Deeds hails from Bath County, a rural enclave worlds away from the gleaming office parks of Fairfax, which McDonnell claims as his hometown. Deeds delivers his talking points with a clumsy stutter and a heavy rural twang, even admitting in his last debate he was “not the best speaker on this stage.” While some pundits have cast Deeds’ sagging numbers as a repudiation of Obama’s economic agenda, Sabato held the candidate responsible for his own plight.
“I have known Creigh for a long time and I like him. But he is not terribly articulate and frankly, his performance has been embarrassing,” Sabato said. “Voters make split-second decisions based on sound bites and they have reacted negatively to Deeds.”
Sabato added that historic trends favor Republicans in Virginia the year after Obama’s victory. “You can call it a Republican resurgence if you want,” he remarked, “but if we had a presidential turnout this year, Deeds would win. Instead, the Republicans are excited because they’re tired of losing and they want to send a message.”
Sabato predicted that as many as 1 million of the Democrats—primarily first-time voters, the young, and minorities—who showed up to deliver Obama a record number of votes, will not even bother to vote this year. Because Virginia is a competitive political environment with a diverse population, this year’s governor’s race may reflect broader national trends heading into the 2010 congressional midterm elections.
While Obama has stumped for Deeds and plans to make another trip to the Old Dominion, many local Democratic insiders have all but given up on him. They worry that if he loses by more than three points, hard-right Republican candidates will dominate down-ticket races. Among the new crop of right-wing upstarts is Barbara Comstock, a conservative flack running for the House of Delegates. While in Washington, Comstock helped run Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s defense fund and served as the communications director for George W. Bush’s Department of Justice, working with Regent University graduate Monica Goodling to install political cadres as U.S. attornies throughout the department.
“Comstock is bringing tons of money in,” Feld said, “and if Deeds gets his ass kicked, she is very likely to win.”
Even more worrisome for Virginia Democrats is the prospect of Ken Cuccinelli winning the attorney general’s race. Cuccinelli is a Catholic traditionalist who has accused pro-choice advocates of “killing…the children.” He recently boasted that he is the most conservative candidate to run for statewide office in his lifetime. An outspoken ally of the Tea Party Patriots, Cuccinelli has announced he was “considering” not getting Social Security numbers for his eight children because the government program “is being used to track you.”
“If McDonnell wins big,” Sabato stated, “Cuccinelli gets in on his coattails.”
Whatever the margin of victory is on November 3, McDonnell is likely to interpret a victory as a blessing from heaven—and set his sights on higher office. “There are other opportunities out there,” he told Robertson in 2007. “But what I can do now is be the best attorney general I can be. If I do that, the Lord will open other doors for me.”