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Virginia GOP Poised for Big Comeback

It’s been a rough four years for Virginia Republicans.

In 2005, after controlling the governor’s mansion for eight years, the GOP lost to Democrat Tim Kaine. Republicans also lost seats in the state legislature. The next year, George Allen, who was already being mentioned as a candidate for president in 2008, lost a Senate re-election bid he should have won to a Republican-turned-Democrat named Jim Webb.

In 2007, Virginia Republicans suffered further setbacks when they lost control of the state Senate and barely held on to the House of Delegates. Then, last November, came what seemed liked the coup de grace; in one day, the Republican Party of Virginia lost a Senate seat and three congressional races. The party also saw the state go for a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time since 1964.

That was one year ago.

Today, with Bob McDonnell at the head of the ticket, Virginia Republicans are headed for a big comeback. Based on all the available polling, it’s clear that not only will they win back the governor’s mansion, but they will also hold onto the lieutenant governor’s office and the attorney general’s office. They will also likely increase their majority in the House of Delegates.

What accounts for such an amazing turnaround in such a short period of time? It all comes down to a little bit of luck and something we haven’t seen from Virginia Republicans lately: a well-run campaign.

Unlike his Democratic opponent, McDonnell faced no opposition for the Republican nomination. While Creigh Deeds spent the better part of a year engaged in a bitter, nasty primary fight, McDonnell ran a general election campaign and saw the payoff in the form of consistently high poll numbers and superior fundraising.

Even after Deeds won the nomination, he failed to excite the Democratic base or attract the voters who gave the state to Barack Obama last year. Possibly due in part to the fact that he comes from the one of the least-populated, most rural counties in the commonwealth, Deeds also suffered problems in Northern Virginia, an area that has been key to Democratic victory over the past four years. Much to the Democrats’ chagrin, McDonnell has been much more competitive in the region than previous Republican candidates, and it’s one of the reasons he’s poised for victory.

The importance of Northern Virginia also played a role in the controversy that erupted in late August over McDonnell’s 20 year-old college thesis. The thesis, written when McDonnell was a graduate student at Pat Robertson’s Regent University in Virginia Beach, came to light in July thanks to an article in the Washington Post.

The content of the thesis itself is about what you’d expect from someone who attended a school run by Pat Robertson. It raised at least a few eyebrows with proposals like banning contraceptives for all couples, and suggesting that women who work outside that home are detrimental to the “traditional family.” Virginia Democrats clearly thought they had a silver bullet.

In both television and radio ads that few Northern Virginians could miss, the Deeds campaign used the thesis to argue that McDonnell, a Northern Virginia native, was “not from around here anymore.” The ads didn’t work. McDonnell’s poll numbers did drop slightly after disclosure of the thesis, but the drop didn’t last long and McDonnell quickly recovered as voters absorbed the thesis issue. Rather than being 2009’s version of the George Allen “macaca” incident, the thesis quickly became irrelevant and pre-election polls show that few voters even care about it.

While Deeds was busy talking about the thesis, McDonnell was doing what he’d been doing since he began his campaign. He was talking about the issues that have been at the forefront of Virginia politics for years: the economy, transportation, and the state budget. Republicans had not connected with voters on these issues in the past, and that was one of the reasons that they’d suffered defeat in four consecutive years. By contrast, Creigh Deeds seemed to be unable to come up with proposals that consisted of anything other than generalities. Independent groups criticized Deeds for not having a coherent transportation plan as late as September, and voters clearly noticed.

Many pundits will draw national implications from what happens in Virginia on Election Day, and Democrats would do well to take notice that a state which went for a Democratic president last year is poised to overwhelmingly vote for a Republican for governor one year later. This race isn’t really a referendum on the Obama presidency, though. It’s confirmation of the fact that Republicans in purple states like Virginia can win if they concentrate on the issues that matter to voters.

And that’s a lesson that Republicans nationwide could stand to learn.

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