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Bob McDonnell,
Pragmatism, and
Local Elections

By Josh Lerner

What a difference a year makes. The electoral tidal wave by Republicans in two major gubernatorial elections suggests that the eulogies written for the party—hardly a year prior—were somewhat premature.

Last November’s election told us a lot about where the party stands, what we should be looking for in future candidates and campaigns, and what we can do to forestall future defeat. As interesting and unprecedented as Chris Christie's victory was in NJ, it's not a terribly useful test case in the laboratory of democracy because of the unique circumstances of New Jersey politics. What it can tell us is that, if the incumbent is particularly unpopular and the state is particularly hostile, just being inoffensive and milquetoast is often enough to win. The fact is that Chris Christie ran a wholly unremarkable campaign, and had Corzine not been so widely disliked (his favorable ratings hadn't topped 40% in a long while) we almost certainly would have lost. So this race is only useful insofar as it tells us how not to screw up in races against unpopular incumbents in very good years for the party (Let’s hope Mark Kirk and Sue Lowden are paying attention!).

What I found most interesting about last November was the utter domination by Bob McDonnell over Creigh Deeds in Virginia, not just because of the margin, but also because of the way in which McDonnell ran his campaign. The emphasis of the McDonnell campaign was on providing substantive and tenable solutions to the two biggest problems facing the state of Virginia: high unemployment and a poor transportation infrastructure. McDonnell tied said problems to correctable elements of current administration policy, and concomitantly provided comprehensive solutions that dealt with the deficiencies of current policy, while also providing a template from which to move forward.

McDonnell’s biggest strength here was the connection between his message and his ideology; he never attempted to divorce pragmatic solutions from their ideological basis, but rather he used his solutions to explain the ideology behind them. His ideology informed his solutions, not the other way around. The reason this is important is that ideology provides a candidate with a comprehensive answer to theoretical problems with a given proposition. It greatly diminishes, although never truly eliminates, the probability for the candidate to take on inherently contradictory messages or policies. By way of having a well informed and serious Weltanschauung, McDonnell was not suspect to the usual temptations besetting non-incumbent candidates; he never made the election about Creigh Deeds, Barack Obama, or other distractions of the week. His fidelity to his message—jobs, education and transportation—kept him from wandering needlessly into “wedge issues” other potential distractions.

Because McDonnell advanced substantive, detailed positions on transportation, jobs and education—issues that affect voters' everyday lives—it allowed him to argue against national Democrats' health care, card check and cap-and-trade bills. McDonnell made himself relevant at the local level before deigning to engage in the national issues of the race. What is abundantly clear, and should never be forgotten by members of the RNC or any other national republican organization is that the largest variable by far is local forces--the candidates, the personalities, local issues, local political history. Right up there is the state of the economy, especially for gubernatorial races involving incumbents. National issues are a distant third.

It is worth remembering that Creigh Deeds, now much maligned for running such a bad campaign, was chosen in the primary nine months ago largely on his electability. The Washington Post endorsed Deeds because they felt he the Democrats, by far the best chance to win. One also has to remember that it was only four years ago that McDonnell beat Deeds in the race for attorney general by less than 2,000 votes; Deeds, it was assumed, was ready for a rematch, and would bring the small town, rural Virginian vibe that neither of his challengers, Terry McCaulife and Brian Moran, could muster. And yet, here we sit, and Bob McDonnell has won the governorship by the largest margin in the state of Virginia in over forty years, Creigh Deeds is being derided as a weak and insubstantial candidate, and, most importantly, the Republicans swept the three state wide offices: something even more impressive when you consider the fact that Bob McDonnell (man of the A+ NRA, Club for Growth, and National Right to Life Council rating) might be the most liberal of the bunch.

The obvious, and necessary contrast here must be made between this race and the congressional election in the 23rd district of New York. There, heavily favored Conservative party candidate Doug Hoffman barely lost to Democrat Bill Owens; a race punctuated by the abnormal and irregular, but one that provides an important lesson for the party and conservatives in general. If one were to compare the conservative bona fides of Doug Hoffman with, say, Bob McDonnell, one would be hard pressed to make a case that Hoffman was substantially (or even just substantially) more conservative than McDonnell.

What separates them is how each decided to sell themselves and their visions. Doug Hoffman was, out of the gate, blasting “Pelosi-Reid Congress” and the “tax and spend socialism” of our president. Hoffman made no bones about the fact that he was running against the Democratic Congress and President, and that a vote for him was a vote against all of that. He was the hot candidate for the conservative movement in America. And, in spite of all the out-of-state well-wishers and allies he could ever need, Doug Hoffman could not win.

What Doug Hoffman never talked about—whether it was because he was thrust into the spotlight by a really bad choice for the Republican nominee or because he just didn’t know any better—were local issues, issues affecting those who live in 23rd Congressional district of New York. What makes this significant is that Hoffman was running in fairly Republican friendly district—The Cook Partisan Index places it at R+1—and couldn’t sell his message to anyone outside of committed, conservative Republicans. McDonnell, who’s hardcore social conservatism was highlighted in a lengthy and drawn out “controversy” over his Senior Thesis brewed up by the Washington Post and beat into the ground by the Deeds campaign, had no problem attracting moderates and independents. He won Fairfax County, a county that Barack Obama won by twenty percent in 2008, by four points. The fact of the matter was the election was not decided on the grand political messages and Byzantine ideological purity tests, but rather on crafting a compelling, substantive, message on local issues that were influenced by—but not entirely beholden to—McDonnell’s conservatism.

The recent surprise victory of Scott Brown in Massachusetts further drives home the point about the importance of “kitchen table” issues at all times. Brown’s relentlessly positive campaign was built entirely around reducing the local tax burden on the citizens of Massachusetts, and how national policies affects that greatly. It helps, also, that Martha Coakley was the epitome of the patronage based, entitlement system of politics that has been a staple of Massachusetts for 60 years, and had neither the following nor the personal charisma that her predecessor Ted Kennedy had. Massachusetts, like New Jersey, had a myriad of on the ground issues that gave Brown a shot: his own personal charisma and his insistence on talking about the positive things he was going to do (and the failure of the Brown=Bush=Hitler arguments the Coakley campaign was trying to make to gain traction). Also, it must be said, the nature of a senate race inherently nationalizes certain issues more than any gubernatorial race.

The quality of the message—and the receptiveness and appropriateness of the messenger—are the proper harbingers for successful politics. Bob McDonnell’s landslide victory reinforces Tip O’Neil’s old maxim about all politics being local politics, but it also should remind party apparatchiks that there is no Laffer Curve for ideology; sometimes the best candidate will be the most ideological and be far outside the mainstream (within reason, of course), but other times, it may be the most moderate or even liberal. McDonnell had what Hoffman and, in a slightly related case, McCain did not; tangible plans to affect change on issues of high salience and a comprehensive explanation for why said plans would be effective. Consistency, substance, and an effective message on local issues are the backbone of any solid campaign.