McDonnell could have been a contender

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Print this page by Robert Powell
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Former Gov. Bob McDonnell called the charges an “unjust
overreach by the federal government." AP Photo/Steve Helber

Many people following former Gov. Bob McDonnell’s fall from grace have traced his descent from the moment he was passed over by Mitt Romney as the Republican vice presidential nominee in 2012.

McDonnell, however, reached the political pinnacle of his career in the 2013 General Assembly session following that election. With bipartisan support, he secured passage of a $6 billion comprehensive transportation funding bill, an achievement that had eluded his predecessors for 27 years.

By all rights, McDonnell’s last months in office should have been a victory lap as he sized up a move to the national stage. He had reason to believe his legislative victory would give him the liftoff he needed. After all, former Gov. Mark Warner had parlayed publicity from a $1.6 billion, bipartisan revenue bill in 2004 into buzz about a possible presidential bid before settling for an easy Senate victory in 2008. Warner’s bill had rescued Virginia’s AAA bond rating, but it didn’t touch transportation.

McDonnell’s grand bargain on transportation funding had not been his first choice. For three years, he tried every other alternative imaginable for raising revenue without increasing taxes. The list included selling the state’s ABC stores, granting corporate naming rights for the commonwealth’s roads and bridges, and putting toll booths on Interstate 95. He did get $3 billion for new transportation projects by selling bonds in 2011, but that amount was dwarfed by the state’s rising transportation needs.

Facing his last year in office, McDonnell hinted at an economic conference at the beginning of 2013 that he was ready to do something big about transportation funding. McDonnell’s proposal, he said, would include “some things that you will all love, and [some] you will all hate.” The bill eventually passed by the General Assembly will raise nearly $6 billion for transportation during the next five years by raising sales taxes and replacing a per-gallon tax on gasoline with a 3.5 percent tax on  wholesale fuel sales.

McDonnell no doubt knew raising taxes and working across the aisle in today’s poisonous political environment carried a political cost. A tea party group, in fact, wasted little time in running ads in Iowa, the first stop in the nation’s next round of presidential primaries, warning voters that McDonnell is not a true conservative.

But the real threat to McDonnell’s political career came not from disgruntled conservatives but from his relationship with Jonnie Williams Sr., then the CEO of Glen Allen-based Star Scientific Inc.

Just weeks after the 2013 General Assembly session ended, a story appeared in The Washington Post revealing that Williams had paid for the Executive Mansion wedding reception for one of McDonnell’s daughters.

The story began a 10-month drip-drip-drip of revelations about gifts and loans showered on the McDonnell family by Williams, whose struggling company had switched from tobacco products to making dietary supplements. The scandal eventually led to the federal indictment of McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, shortly after the governor stepped down at the end of his four-year term in January.

McDonnell has admitted poor judgment in his relationship with Williams and has apologized for the embarrassment it has caused the commonwealth, but he steadfastly maintains that he has done nothing wrong. “Not one penny of taxpayer money” went to Williams or Star Scientific during his administration,”

McDonnell said in a televised response to the indictment. He describes the criminal charges, the first filed against a line of 72 Virginia governors stretching back to Patrick Henry, as “unjust overreach by the federal government.”

If McDonnell’s political career had not been derailed by “Giftgate,” where would his ambition have taken him?

McDonnell seemed be the natural choice to oppose Warner in his Senate re-election bid.  Both are former governors with reputations for getting things done in a tough legislative environment.

However, a University of Mary Washington poll conducted before the Giftgate revelations began showed Warner with a huge lead over McDonnell in a possible matchup.

A campaign against Warner would have been too risky for McDonnell, says Stephen Farnsworth, a Mary Washington professor and the director of its Center for Leadership and Media Studies. If McDonnell lost, “he would be damaged goods in Virginia politics.”

Ironically, a less hazardous choice would have been for McDonnell to run for president, Farnsworth says. After all, he had the right résumé for a good run in the Republican primaries: a former Southern governor with a successful record and strong ties to the conservative Christian community.

Those credentials stack up favorably against potential Republican candidates such as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Farnsworth notes. “His prospects would have been as good as anybody’s if he had not been caught up in the scandal.”

Additionally, a presidential bid offered no downside for McDonnell’s future in Virginia politics. Unlike the Senate contest, “no one is going to fault you for losing a race like that,” the professor says.

McDonnell would have been in position to run for governor again in 2017 or oppose Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine for his Senate seat in 2018.
Instead, McDonnell’s career is now ashes, no matter how his court case is decided. “It’s a Shakespearean tragedy,” Farnsworth says. “He could have had it all.”

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