A deeper shade of purple

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Print this page Bernie Niemeier

The commonwealth’s once-and-done system for its governors yields predictable results.  During the latter half of every Virginia governor’s four-year term, national ambitions take center stage.

In 2001, Jim Gilmore took over as chairman of the Republican National Committee.  In 2004, Mark Warner was being considered by some as potential presidential material.  In 2008, Tim Kaine was a possible vice presidential candidate, ultimately taking over the Democratic National Committee.  Now, Gov. Bob McDonnell is vying for a 2012 vice presidential nod.

You can’t blame our governors.  Virginia is the only state that does not allow its governors to succeed themselves. The result is that our chief executives face a very simple choice — either polish their résumés for a quest for higher political office or face retirement.

Few of our recent governors have shown an inclination to retire upon leaving office.  Politicians by nature are constant contenders for a bigger stage. Once they’ve topped the charts in Virginia, the next step is the national limelight.

A successful campaign to be governor of Virginia generally requires moderate policy positions to attract independents. Roughly one-third of voters identify themselves as independents.  On the other hand, being nominated to run for office requires adherence to party orthodoxy.

Being selected to join a national ticket is even more complicated.  Parties seek vice presidential candidates who either can balance the ideological leanings at the top of the ticket or bring additional experience to the campaign.  Joe Biden, for example, provided age, foreign relations and long-term Washington experience to the Obama ticket in 2008, matching some of the strengths of the Republican presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain.

Virginia’s once reliable reputation as a red state in national elections took a distinct turn in 2008 as the commonwealth’s voters chose Democrat Barack Obama for president and selected Mark Warner to join Jim Webb as the state’s second Democratic U.S. senator.

Virginia’s 2008 swing made the 2009 gubernatorial race a very closely watched election.  McDonnell’s win followed a pattern established 34 years ago in which the party that wins the White House loses the Virginia gubernatorial election the following year.

As we approach the 2012 presidential election and the 2013 governor’s race, new dynamics suggest that Republican Party orthodoxy will be a more significant factor than usual.  Three related factors are driving the upcoming Virginia campaigns toward a deeper shade of purple: 1) McDonnell’s vice presidential possibilities, 2) the 20-20 tie in the Virginia Senate, and 3) Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s announcement that he will challenge Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

Although the Republican National Convention does not occur until August, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is perhaps the most likely to survive the contest to be the presidential candidate.  He’s been well vetted over the years and most definitely has the credentials of a candidate whose “time has come.”  Several potential challengers have come and gone, with none having any real staying power.
Romney is a moderate Republican who, as governor of a liberal-leaning Northeastern state, helped create a health-care plan that is widely seen as the model for “Obamacare.” Given that background, Romney undoubtedly would benefit from McDonnell’s reputation as a successful, conservative Southern governor.

McDonnell campaigned largely on economic issues (“Bob’s for Jobs”) when he ran for governor, but he will need to put his conservatism on greater display to bring balance to a Romney ticket.
Virginia’s newly elected state Senate is split 20-20 between the parties.  When there was a Democratic majority, signature Republican initiatives against gun control, abortion, illegal immigration and tax increases often ran into a roadblock after being passed in the Republican-dominated House of Delegates.

To the extent these issues surface in the 2012 General Assembly, they likely will benefit the ambitions of both McDonnell and Bolling. The presence of Cuccinelli, a champion of many conservative causes, in the governor’s race means the Bolling campaign may need to take a more conservative stance to win the nomination and keep the Republican Party intact in the general election.

Tempting fate, Republicans are counting on a 2012 presidential win to help them hold onto the governor’s office in 2013, breaking the pattern of state and national winners coming from opposing parties.
For Democrats, these same dynamics also foreshadow a move toward a deeper shade of purple.  Virginia Democrats have long known that they must campaign from the center to get elected and govern from the center to be effective in office.  Competitive pressures now pushing Republican candidates to the right may open up the center for Democratic challengers.

At this point, only one Democrat appears ready to toss his hat into the ring in the governor’s race.  Former Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe ran a well-financed but unsuccessful campaign to be the Democratic candidate in 2009.  He’s been campaigning for a second chance in 2013 ever since.

McAuliffe’s connections to the blue party are deep, possibly even a liability.  Still relatively new to Virginia, McAuliffe is running as a successful businessman in the Mark Warner model.  With Virginia’s political music changing to deep purple, we’ll soon see if other candidates join the dance. 

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