Under the charming headline “Divisive Issues No Longer McDonnell’s First Words,” the Washington Post posited today that Bob McDonnell, the conservative Republican candidate for governor of Virginia, is running with a mild-mannered image that will play in the suburbs.
[…] McDonnell’s speech was remarkable for what went unsaid. Unlike past GOP nominees, McDonnell stayed silent on almost every bedrock conservative issue — abortion, guns, the sanctity of marriage, school choice — the very issues that served as the foundation for his 20-year political career…
I do not dispute that there is some truth to this piece, but I must take issue with its central thesis, which relies on a misleading account of the last two Virginia gubernatorial races. The idea is that in the past, Republicans campaigned loudly on abortion and other “divisive” issues, and now McDonnell is doing something different. Here is the write-up for 2001:
…Conservative social views used to be a staple of GOP gubernatorial campaigns in Virginia, but they’ve come up short in the past two campaigns. In 2001, Republican Mark Earley lost to Warner after campaigning against new taxes while talking up his support for school vouchers and opposition to abortion.
But that is not the 2001 election I remember — nor is it the one the Post covered at the time. When the Post finally endorsed Mark Warner over Earley in 2001, its editorial board wrote that Earley’s pro-life position was “not much of an issue in this campaign” — and indeed it was not. The biggest complaints they had against Earley were his lack of energy and his unwillingness to support a referendum on higher taxes in Northern Virginia. (That referendum was later held, and defeated.) The only ad I remember from Earley’s campaign was on transportation issues, in which he promised an extra lane on I-66.
Here is what today’s piece says about the 2005 race for governor:
Four years ago, Republican Jerry Kilgore campaigned on the death penalty, illegal immigration and abortion. In the days leading to the election, he boasted that he was the “pro-gun-owner, anti-tax, limited-government, anti-illegal-immigration, pro-public-safety, pro-death-penalty . . . trust-the-people conservative.” He lost to Kaine.
Again, I do not remember Kilgore ever campaigning on or advertising his views on abortion, although I do remember Kaine giving a lot of lip-service to the pro-life cause (some people are still confused about his position — perhaps I’m one of them). On the contrary, you may recall that conservatives doubted Kilgore’s bona fides on abortion and a variety of other issues. He tried to make up for these doubts by employing extremely strident and off-putting rhetoric on immigration and the death penalty. His appalling ad on the latter issue actually mentioned Hitler. McDonnell and Bill Bolling (R), who were both considered more conservative than Kilgore, narrowly won the other two statewide races (for attorney general and lieutenant governor) despite top-ticket drag from Kilgore. Not only did he lose, but Kilgore actually received fewer votes than any of the other five statewide Democratic and Republican candidates.
McDonnell is not running a Kilgore-style campaign, and he’s facing a very different electorate than Earley faced eight years ago. But I can’t help but think this article is trying to make the facts fit preconceived notions. It is ludicrous to equate Earley’s campaign with Kilgore’s. It is also misleading to invoke abortion whenever explaining poor Republican campaigns that are strident and/or incapable of connecting with voters.