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August, 30th 2009

McDonnell oppo file: Irrelevant or implosion-indicator?

– Liz Mair

The Virginia blogosphere is buzzing today over what Mike Allen’s Politico Playbook dubbed this morning the “oppo file” on Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell.

Conservative blogs Mason Conservative and Bearing Drift (together with RedState) weigh in, in McDonnell’s defense (no surprise).  Blue Virginia (for the moment) simply asks “will today's Washington Post story scare the you-know-what out of Democrats and motivate them to start paying attention to this race?”  Of course, my reliably Democratic friend Not Larry Sabato posts this excerpt of the piece under the headline “MCDONNELL IMPLODES!!!!!”

At age 34, two years before his first election and two decades before he would run for governor of Virginia, Robert F. McDonnell submitted a master's thesis to the evangelical school he was attending in Virginia Beach in which he described working women and feminists as "detrimental" to the family. He said government policy should favor married couples over "cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators." He described as "illogical" a 1972 Supreme Court decision legalizing the use of contraception by unmarried couples.

 Wowzer, you may be thinking.  If you are, I can hardly blame you—I thought the same when I read that portion of the piece this morning, too.  It makes McDonnell sound at best like a throwback to the 1950’s, and at worst like a redux version of Rick Santorum (admittedly without bestiality references) and generally is not something that would, as a result, be well-taken on spec by many swing voters reading the piece (especially women). 

However, having thought about this a little since reading the piece through, and having spoken to some friends better-versed in Virginia politics than I, I also have to say that while McDonnell’s authoring of this particular thesis isn’t something that is exactly going to fire me up to go and vote for him, I’m also not sure how much its dissection actually helps the Deeds campaign at all or quite yet.  Ultimately, for moderates and libertarians (and I’ve been described as both), McDonnell having authored this may take a bit of the shine off of him, but that is not the same thing as making Deeds look like a positively better choice to voters.  [intro] 

This is what I alluded to in a tweet last week, when I asked of this ad, put out by Virginia Democrats, “does it help Deeds?”

Making the other guy look like more of an ideological culture-warrior than what people might currently assume he is, is certainly beneficial in politics (on both sides).  Roughing up the other side forces them to spend time dealing with stuff they don’t want to, lose time that could be spent on winning votes, and sometimes, if the hit is good enough, gets voters to start taking a look at your candidate.  But if your candidate has been failing for months to make an impression and doesn’t appear to be offering much of anything apart from attacks (some of which are partially rebutted in an immediate response), does it ultimately do anything beyond make the other guy look a little less appealing, while doing little or nothing to positively motivate voters to pay attention to your guy and perhaps come over to his side? 

To be fair, in this instance, much of this will be decided by what the McDonnell campaign does next (good start that I’d like to see more of: Emphasizing McDonnell’s record of supporting child day care in, e.g., welfare reform legislation, as well as working women known to him personally), and indeed what the Deeds campaign does.  But let’s be clear, two things the Deeds campaign has not been seen to be doing well enough of late are a) running a competent campaign and b) talking enough about issues Virginians vote on, like the economy, jobs and transportation.  Whether you love McDonnell or hate him (and I’m neither his biggest detractor nor his biggest fan), it is clear he’s been handling himself better than Deeds recently—which suggests that while today’s article may look or even be somewhat damaging on its face, it may not ultimately prove to be the coup the Deeds folks presumably hope.  To use an analogy here, in my opinion, back in 2004, it would have been fair to say that John Kerry succeeded in convincing a good chunk of the country, including swing voters I know, that George W Bush was an overly ideological leader, too representative of right-wing interests, and insufficiently centrist.  However, he—John Kerry—did not succeed in actually presenting himself as an appealing candidate.  He wasn’t a leader that a lot of people (even Democrats I know) positively wanted to associate themselves with, a lot of people had no idea what he stood for, and ultimately, they may have disliked Bush, but they knew who he was and what he would do.  So more of them voted for Bush anyway.

Like Kerry, Deeds has a problem in that a lot of ordinary voters right now don’t know what he stands for.  Heck, to a large degree, even I do not—and while I’m not a super-well-briefed political insider from the standpoint of Virginia politics, I pay more attention than your average man on the street.  A lot of folks I know who fall into the latter category have no idea where Deeds is at on taxes, spending, transportation or education.  Some of them have an inkling—even if just a slight one— with McDonnell.  Some of them will not like the Washington Post piece, and they’ll feel uncomfortable about it and the candidate—the risk of them becoming too plentiful is one the McDonnell camp will need to deal with, at least a bit.  But I’m just not convinced Deeds profits from this, apart from perhaps ramping up his base and motivating them to—blutness alert-- give a crap, which many of them currently do not, as it stands, as Lowell Feld’s comment over at Blue Virginia suggests.

Yeah, I’d prefer it if we were running a Republican who had a more standard pro-life position, and who instead had written his thesis on "The Republican Party's Vision for Reining in Deficits: The Compelling Issue of The Decade."  I bet there will be plenty of people who read the Post this morning who will feel that way, too.  I feel less like McDonnell and I have historically been on the same page with regard to an array of cultural issues.  But I don’t think that guarantees that I or other voters will take a close look at Deeds—at least not yet.  And of course, when they do, they might just find they don’t agree with him anyway: If you believe Lowell, George Allen is currently more popular in Virginia than the President—and presumably Deeds is a “D” because he’s got more in common with the latter than the former (for better or for worse).

I do, however, reserve my right to reverse opinion on this, depending on how it plays out over the next 24 hours—something that’s hard to guess at on a lazy Sunday…

UPDATE: Brian over at Bearing Drift notes that Virginia Democrats might want to exercise some caution in attacking McDonnell over his backing of covenant marriage.  He cites a Fredricksburg.com article that details current Virginia (Democratic) Governor and DNC Chairman Tim Kaine's support for allowing Virginia couples to enter into the same.  McDonnell's support for covenant marriage is mentioned in the Washington Post article.

UPDATE NO. 2: This is the kind of thing that helps take more shine off of a candidate.  It would appear that the DNC has put out a pretty hard-hitting statement on this.  Politico's Ben Smith runs it under the title "Borking McDonnell."  Ben also writes, "The new line of attack -- drawn from McDonnell's deeply socially conservative Regent University thesis -- offers Democrats hopes of redefining a race that seemed to be slipping from their grasp."  Note the past-tense... "seemed."  But also note the "offers Democrats hopes."  McDonnell still has a solid lead over Deeds, and I maintain that Deeds is going to need to do more than make McDonnell look a bit scary or 50's-esque in order to prevail.  Like start going out and talking to swing voters more frequently and forecefully about his plans for the economy, jobs, transportation, and so on, presuming he has enough to say on that front to make it worthwhile...

UPDATE NO. 3: I couldn't help but notice that Virginia Governor, Democrat, and DNC Chairman Tim Kaine cannot, apparently, spell Creigh Deeds' name-- either that or his copy-editing staff slipped up (yeah, OK, clearly the latter).  Per Ben Smith again, Kaine sent out an email today that says this: "Creigh Deed’s basic governing philosophy is simple – what is best for Virginia."  Oops.  I know several Democrats who live in Virginia who think Kaine hasn't been sufficiently engaged in this race to date.  I guess if you can't get the guy's name right in a defense email...

UPDATE NO. 4: The McDonnell camp puts out a pretty good response to the general lines of attack coming from the WaPo/Deeds/the DNC/Kaine/VA Dems here.  On face value, having a self-described pro-choice woman who was the head of "Virginians for Mark Warner" spring to your defense would seem to be a pretty good rebuttal, especially given her listing of McDonnell female appointments to prominent positions within the Attorney General's office and within his campaign.  And of course she's not the only one springing to his defense, either.  Also note that these women don't ignore talking about McDonnell's record, and positive aspects of it.  That's noteworthy given what sure feels like a lot of unfamiliarity on the part of Virginia voters with Deeds' record and his proposed policies-- something I still believe he's going to need to deal with, even if this attack proves very effective, in the end.

 

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