Virginia Race Gives Republicans a Blueprint for Success

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Win McNamee / Getty

Bob McDonnell, candidate for Virginia governor, campaigns at a Women for McDonnell rally in Vienna, Va.

On the Sunday before a pivotal election, a few hundred supporters have gathered to hear their nominee speak. For many in the excited crowd, it's their first political event. "This one feels big because the whole country is paying attention to it because it's a change in the attitude: people are fed up with Washington," says Lisa Manser, 42, a Leesburg, Va., teacher who had knocked on doors as a campaign volunteer for the first time in her life earlier that day.

The candidates arrive and the speeches begin. One riles the crowd up with a chant, "Yes, we can!" Another gets them going with the old Kerry campaign slogan, "Help is on the way!" He continues: "When we're done and the polls close, change is on the way! But unlike change that we've seen in the past this is change you can hope for!"

The scene may seem eerily familiar, especially since the rally was held in front of the very offices Barack Obama's campaign used last year in this northwest Virginia town. But the rally in Leesburg on Sunday was for the Republican gubernatorial nominee Bob McDonnell; the speakers included attorney general nominee Ken Cuccinelli (the leader of the "Yes, we can" chant) and Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling ("Help is on the way"). And while the tone may have sounded reminiscent of Obama's stirring rallies of a year ago, the platform couldn't have been more conservative. "This has been a campaign of ideas, on innovation, on a positive uplifting vision for the future of Virginia," McDonnell told the crowd. "And what we need you to do is go find those people who believe in these limited conservative principles that we've laid out in the last six months, that believe free enterprise and the private sector is the key to economic prosperity."

For all the talk of Republican chaos and infighting in this off-year election, the GOP in Virginia seems to have found the formula for unifying its party and delivering a winning message. If the polls are accurate, McDonnell could walk off with a double-digit victory over Democratic nominee Creigh Deeds in Tuesday's election — this in a state that only a year ago was declared to be trending blue. And across the Potomac, Washington is paying attention. "The independent electorate in our state has indicated in a very strong way that they believe the vision that Bob McDonnell is out there promoting is one that satisfies what they're feeling right now," says Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the No. 2 House Republican.

McDonnell is as conservative as they come: pro-life, pro-gun, antitax, pro–small government. But from the get-go his central message has been about jobs, and that has helped him come across as less threatening to moderates and independents in the state. "We certainly have our own [intra-party] food fights here," says Phil Coz, McDonnell's campaign manager. "But it didn't take a genius to understand that jobs and the economy were the No. 1 issue from Day One."

So how did Republicans manage to dominate on economic issues after two cycles of losing — often by double digits — on their handling of the economy? Part of it was simply keeping that focus on jobs, and not allowing itself to get sidetracked by social or cultural issues. After all, when the economy is bad, grass-roots anger at whomever is in power can be a powerful weapon, and populist, pro-change rhetoric always sounds good. A Republican base riled up by Obama's ambitious agenda also helped. "We're just motivated by the current political environment," says Jonathan Rogers, 25, a military officer who went to the rally with his wife Marissa. "At the federal level there's a lot of things that it seems are being rammed down the throat of the country. The only way to change that is to work at the state and local level and work your way back up."

Just as important to McDonnell's success was his decision to emulate Obama in running a largely positive campaign. Though he was often critical of Obama and congressional Democrats' policies, he refused to take Deeds head-on. Even when Deeds tried to make an issue of McDonnell's master's thesis, the Republican skillfully deflected the attack. In a 1989 thesis for Regent University, McDonnell had argued that working women were "detrimental" to family and that the government should favor married couples over "homosexuals or fornicators." McDonnell fought back, saying he's changed his views since writing the 20-year-old document. He began featuring his three daughters, one of them an Iraq war veteran, in his commercials and made a big push with women's events. And in the latest Washington Post poll, McDonnell led Deeds by seven percentage points as more trusted to handle women's issues. The negative attacks hurt Deeds, especially among Obama Republicans, says Joseph Taylor, a 19-year-old economics major at George Mason University who made more than 400 calls for McDonnell on Sunday. "A lot of the folks I spoke to still like Obama even if they take issue with some of the things that he's been doing," Taylor said before the Leesburg rally. "But the overall sense of why they're moving toward McDonnell is because he's been running a positive campaign. Whereas Deeds has been just nasty."

Off-year elections always see a bit of a backlash: the Democrats lost the Virginia statehouse in 1997, while Bush's GOP candidate was defeated in 2001. Oftentimes that backlash doesn't impact the next elections: in 1998 the Democrats picked up five seats in the House, and Bush picked up eight House seats and two Senate seats in 2002. But they are typically useful petri dishes for experimenting with all kinds of messaging and new technologies. In 2001, for instance, Karl Rove test-drove most of the components that would help the GOP expand its majorities the next year, such as techniques for compiling voter lists and his 72-hour get-out-the-vote blitz.

This time around, though, the Obama campaign has been oddly absent in Virginia. If you'd searched for an event in northern Virginia on last week, you'd have gotten 72 matches: five events for the Democratic gubernatorial nominee Deeds, five for candidates out of state and about 60 one-year-anniversary parties for the election of Barack Obama. Charlie McKeon, a senior systems analyst at AOL, spent much of Sunday door-knocking for Deeds just a few miles from the McDonnell rally. Whereas last year the campaign offices overflowed with volunteers, resources and money, this cycle it has taken 200 calls to produce just one volunteer, he says. "That was a once-in-a-lifetime campaign," bemoans the 55-year-old who first experienced volunteering on last year's Obama campaign. Moderate, native son Deeds didn't help himself by spending much of the campaign running away from Obama, criticizing his climate-change plan and rarely talking about him by name until the final weeks when, in a desperate move to ignite his base, he invited the President over for a rally.

But are there lessons in what happens in Virginia on Tuesday for candidates in next year's midterm elections? "McDonnell ran as a moderate-conservative, not a hard conservative," says Larry Sabato, a political-science professor at the University of Virginia. "The GOP base was tolerant and let McDonnell shave off his rough edges. Will the GOP base let its candidates do that in 2010, or will the base insist on purity? If the former, more Republicans will win in 2010, and if the latter, fewer."