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The Republican party has no national leaders. Its standing with voters is at an all-time low. It battens itself on an ideological purity that turns off the center and can’t appeal to an increasingly suburban and diverse electorate. If it is not fated to go the way of the Federalists or the Whigs, it is certainly a spent force.
This is the rote obituary for the GOP that the Left can’t resist. It is all the more alluring for its elements of truth. A party that holds neither the presidency, the House, nor the Senate won’t be stacked with national leaders. In polls, the GOP is still suffering from its Bush-DeLay hangover.
Yet, in Virginia this year, this death notice has been shown to be both dated and premature. It foolishly extrapolates from political conditions a year ago that have already drastically changed, and assumes that Republican candidates will never adjust to new circumstances. Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell has run a model campaign for the Obama era, energizing the Right and winning the center in a tour de force directly on Pres. Barack Obama’s doorstep.
The battle over how to interpret the imminent defeat of the Democrat in the race, Creigh Deeds, has already begun. Democrats want to shrug it off as not surprising in an essentially red state — home to the former capital of the Confederacy and all that.
Except Virginia has been trending blue. Obama won it 53-47. Since 1997, The Washington Post notes, a million more people live in the state, most of them minorities and many in the affluent suburbs of northern Virginia. Democrats hold both U.S. Senate seats; they won a majority in the state Senate in 2007; and they picked up three U.S. House seats in 2008. Virginia is a swing state, even if Democrats don’t like the way it’s now swinging.
McDonnell is benefiting from some factors outside his control. Since 1977, Virginia has always elected governors from the opposite party as the president. And the stumblebum Deeds campaign has often matched strategic purposelessness to tactical incompetence. McDonnell, however, has mostly made his own good fortune.
The White House contends Deeds fumbled badly by not basking enough in the reflected brilliance of Barack Obama. It fails to understand the reason he didn’t. The cataract of spending at the federal level has turned off independents and created a political opening for limited-government conservatism that hasn’t existed since Bill Clinton won the government-shutdown fights of the mid-1990s. McDonnell has effectively hit Deeds on Obama-Pelosi issues that are unpopular in Virginia — deficit spending, card-check, cap-and-trade, and the ban on offshore drilling.
While tough on Deeds, McDonnell has stayed upbeat, both substantively and in tone. He has unleashed a flurry of policy proposals. Focusing on the pocketbook issues of jobs, transportation, and education, his ideas emphasize regulatory reform, competition, and private-public partnerships. They are conservative but pragmatic, meant to appeal to non-ideological voters. According to polls, McDonnell is beating Deeds on taxes, economic development, education, transportation — and even “issues of special concern to women.”
A few weeks ago, that last datum would have been a shocker. When a 20-year-old graduate thesis McDonnell had written at Pat Robertson’s university came to light, Deeds fastened for weeks on its inflammatory language. He managed only to convince voters he was running an issueless, negative campaign. Deeds narrowly leads on the issue of abortion. But guess what? People care more about jobs.
McDonnell’s comportment has perfectly complimented his campaign — relentlessly cheerful and moderate in demeanor. He’s been gracious about Obama personally, even while excoriating him on issues. When a Republican candidate for the House of Delegates unleashed lunatic comments about resorting to “the bullet box” if Obama can’t be stopped at the ballot box, McDonnell instantly rebuked her.
In the aftermath of Obama’s national sweep last year, liberals have talked as if Republicans will never win elections again. They will, and Bob McDonnell shows how.
— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. © 2009 by King Features Syndicate