Richmond, Va. — Elsewhere, in swing states such as Wisconsin and Ohio, Republican governors are under siege. Union heavies have swarmed capitol rotundas, schoolteachers are marching in the streets, and businesses are struggling. And as the recession continues, poll numbers are plummeting for GOP executives. But here in Virginia, a purple state carried by Pres. Barack Obama in 2008, Gov. Bob McDonnell, a first-term Republican, is a cross-aisle favorite with a 67 percent approval rating. What gives?
Chalk it up to pragmatism, McDonnell tells me as we chat in his third-floor office, a few steps from the governor’s mansion. “It’s the same situation that President Obama has got — a Democratic senate, a Republican house,” he says. “But we try to do things different.” Indeed, since his landslide, 17-point victory in 2009, the 57-year-old former attorney general has established an impressive record: closing a $4.2 billion budget shortfall and dialing back state spending. Unemployment hovers near 6 percent, well below the national average, and CNBC recently celebrated Virginia as a business haven.
What intrigues Republicans, beyond the splashy scorecard, is how McDonnell has done it: with little fanfare and making few enemies. When he was elected, near the end of Obama’s first year, he was heralded as one of the GOP’s gubernatorial comers, alongside New Jersey’s Chris Christie. Christie, as we all know, has since become a national (and YouTube) sensation, a brusque hero with countless party grandees begging him to run for president. McDonnell, a low-key former Army lieutenant colonel, has not reached similar status.
But he’s on his way. In the eyes of party leaders, 2009 yielded not one but two stars in the states. The Republican Governors Association recently tapped McDonnell to be its chairman, and he’s quickly become a fundraising powerhouse. Yet it is his quiet success here that is drawing the attention of White House contenders. GOP consultants frequently cite him as a potential vice-presidential candidate, a conservative who could add gubernatorial heft and a suburban temperament to the ticket. McDonnell, of course, shrugs off the chatter, but he has not shut the door should the nominee call.
And call the candidates have — Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, the frontrunners in most polls, keep in close touch, as do other campaigns. Perry, for his part, recently raised funds downtown, showering McDonnell with high praise before a packed convention hall. At the event, scores of Virginia Republicans displayed “Perry-McDonnell” pins. McDonnell didn’t snuff out these musings, playfully jabbing Perry, another jobs-centric governor, about Virginia’s economic prowess.
Since McDonnell cannot serve consecutive terms under Virginia law, state politicos predict he’d take the VP slot if offered. He’s “interested,” he tells me, but not seeking the nomination. Virginia is trending right, so tapping McDonnell for electoral votes would likely be unnecessary. But his supporters’ case is about more than geography: They argue that he’d accentuate, with easy charm and business smarts, the Republican commitment to job growth. Plus, he’d give the ticket a Catholic father of five. And with a law degree from Regent University, a school founded by Pat Robertson, he has evangelical appeal, too.
McDonnell would like to see a Republican governor in the Oval Office. But don’t expect him to decide between Perry and Romney anytime soon. “I don’t agree with myself 100 percent of the time,” he laughs when pressed about where he finds fault with the two. “But I think governors make good presidents. You’ve got to balance the budget. You can’t make excuses.”
Unlike some of his high-profile friends at the RGA, McDonnell has at every juncture kept his focus on building coalitions in the capital, with only a casual glance at the national scene. In fact, transportation and infrastructure — two words that make conservatives skittish — have become his bailiwick. But his attention to those issues, he says, is driven not by big-government dreams, but by hard evidence and the political realities of divided government. On the campaign trail, McDonnell toured Virginia by RV and was alarmed at the condition of state highways, from the traffic-snarled Beltway suburbs to the crumbling roads near Virginia’s coalfields. Residents’ complaints were constant, but few wanted to pay higher taxes to support roadwork.
As a longtime legislator — he was first elected to the state house in 1991 — McDonnell was well aware of how Republicans usually avoided involved and expensive transportation projects, unable or unwilling to find new revenue streams. But with the economy stumbling and frustration mounting, he presented the issue in his terms, leading a push for smarter spending and stiff oversight, not for ladling cash. If he could make a bipartisan, prudent pitch to voters, he knew, legislators would follow. But first, he needed fresh data, some fiscal evidence to satisfy conservatives and rally liberals.
He soon found it. Four months into office, McDonnell ordered a Department of Transportation audit, which in September 2010 revealed $1.4 billion in reserve funds. That stash was used, but it was far from enough. With interest rates at historic lows, McDonnell wanted to be aggressive, raising another $4 billion — $3 billion in borrowed capital and $1 billion in federal bonds — to redress congestion and build new roads. The governor huddled with GOP and Democratic leaders at the capitol, debating the details of a comprehensive proposal.
For weeks, both sides had concerns about the additional debt; everyone had concerns about where the money would be spent. His original proposal, calling for an “infrastructure bank,” was shot down. As the political clock ticked, McDonnell knew the odds were against him. Virginia’s political graveyard is full of governors who tried and failed on transportation reform. Democrat Mark Warner attempted to raise regional sales taxes and was rebuffed by voters. McDonnell’s predecessor, Democrat Tim Kaine, faced opposition from GOP lawmakers. But in meeting after late-night meeting, McDonnell made clear to Republicans that fixing the roads was long overdue, and, with the state’s high credit rating, now was the time. And to Democrats, he urged caution, arguing that in a recession, both parties needed to focus on efficiency.
Slowly, McDonnell began to win backing for SB 1446, the final package. After decades of working with him, Democratic senators, even committee barons, trusted him and appreciated his collaborative approach. They began to whip in its favor. In the house, Speaker William Howell, McDonnell’s friend and ally, did the same. By February of this year, the omnibus bill passed by a 65–33 margin in the lower chamber and 34–6 in the senate, with the support of the Democratic leadership.
“We’re all about getting results,” McDonnell says, reflecting on the pursuit. “Talk is cheap. There is plenty of rhetoric, sound bites, and posturing in Washington, but we are trying not to do that here. Especially when you have a divided legislature, you have to do that. We can’t win with just Republicans or Democrats. We have to get people working together. So I spend a lot of time with leaders of both parties in this office, getting stuff done — on time. That’s results-oriented conservatism: You stick to your guns, but we all need to do some things to find solutions.”
Not that he’s afraid to knock heads. McDonnell may have finessed a major transportation bill through the legislature, but its implementation is causing headaches. To help pay for highway construction in central Virginia, he and state legislators are thinking of collecting a $2 to $4 toll on Interstate 95. Conservatives are grumbling that this is a thinly disguised tax on commuters, a roundabout way of avoiding tax increases, which McDonnell pledged to oppose.
McDonnell acknowledges that, in the final two years of his term, brokering deals like the transportation bill will only become more complicated as he looks to reform the state’s pension system and bolster economic growth. Early in his term, when he proposed deep budget cuts, he hinted at what was to come. He pushed for more than $700 million to be cut from public schools and more than $300 million to be axed from state health-care programs. “Of course, we had screaming from people in education and health care and others, that horrible things were going to happen,” he says. “It’s hard for politicians to say, ‘Elect me, and we’ll do less for you.’”
McDonnell pauses. He kicks his right foot up onto his coffee table, the same foot he thought could get him onto the Fighting Irish football squad as a walk-on punter. Around the room hang pictures of George Washington, and the shelves are lined with tomes about the Founding Fathers. Those cuts, he said then, gave him “heartburn,” and the burn lingers. He has learned that politics more often is about the half loaf — making the best of what you’re given — more than soaring rhetoric or political standoffs.
For conservatives, he says, this needn’t be troubling. His record, from cutting spending to stabilizing higher-education funding, is about balance more than partisanship — and it’s worked. In states under Obama’s sway, he says, the nonconfrontational approach can win. In November’s legislative elections — they’re odd-year occurrences in the Old Dominion — he expects Republicans to pick up seats in both chambers. One doesn’t need bruises or a temper to lead, he says. “These are serious elections, unlike in 2008, where it seemed to be more about style. We tried style, and it didn’t work.”
McDonnell’s own understated, conservative style is catching on more than he admits. He cuts me off when I once again bring up the veep chatter. “As Mills Godwin said, there is no higher honor than being the governor of Virginia. I have the best job in America, I really do. Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and . . . Bob McDonnell,” he chuckles, an eyebrow raised. “That has a nice roll to it.” Romney, Perry, and the rest appear to agree.