Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell is pouring himself into the Tea Party.
McDonnell started off his political career as a reliable social conservative vote in the House of Delegates. This wasn’t surprising: Though he grew up in Northern Virginia, he graduated from Regent University, forged a friendship with Pat Robertson, and established his base in Virginia Beach.
When McDonnell went statewide as a candidate for attorney general in 2005, however, he was smart enough to realize that Virginia’s demographics were changing, and that the state wasn’t as solidly conservative as it had once been. Though he did not modify his positions on social issues, he focused more on drug enforcement, sexual predators, terrorism, and gang violence during his time as the Commonwealth’s chief law enforcement officer.
Running for governor in 2009, McDonnell played up his past ties to now-liberal Northern Virginia in order to make inroads into the Democratic region. He took a big leap toward the center, campaigning almost exclusively on economic issues and promising to do something about the Washington area’s transportation mess. He was elected in a landslide.
While McDonnell has continued to focus mainly on economic matters during his first eight months as governor, he is always looking ahead. He’s a young-looking 56, and he can’t seek another consecutive term as Virginia governor. So now, he’s starting to go national.
On Saturday, he addressed the Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit, where he delivered uncontroversial remarks about how “values really matter” and “character really counts.” McDonnell finished 12th of 17 listed candidates in a presidential straw poll at the conference later that day. It was not a great showing, but McDonnell, who is almost certainly not running for president in two years, bested likely candidates like Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Texas Rep. Ron Paul. A second vote showed some support for McDonnell as a 2012 Republican vice presidential candidate.
McDonnell is now reaching out to the populist conservative Tea Party movement, with which he has had little interaction so far. He will appear at the first-ever Virginia Tea Party Patriots Convention in Richmond in October. While as the Washington Examiner reports, McDonnell will merely “participate in a panel about state government efficiency” -- hardly the red-meat stuff of a Glenn Beck rally -- it’s still a start.
George Mason University’s Stephen Farnsworth told the Examiner, “For the last six months, we have seen [in] one Republican nominating primary after another that the Tea Party is a force to be reckoned with at the nomination stage. It's absolutely smart politics for the governor to talk to the Tea Party.”
Two possible claimants to the next Virginia GOP gubernatorial nomination, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, will also attend. Cuccinelli is more of a Tea Party kind of guy than McDonnell. He has filed suit against the new federal healthcare law on constitutional grounds, and in July he filed an amicus brief opposing the federal government's lawsuit against Arizona over immigration.
But while reaching out to the Tea Party makes sense to McDonnell as he tiptoes onto the national stage, it could be more problematic for Cuccinelli. If he runs for governor in 2011, he will face the same true-blue Northern Virginia voters that McDonnell did, and Cuccinelli’s record will be harder to play down.
Politico reported recently that 11th District Republican candidate Keith Fimian, who won his primary with grassroots Tea Party backing, is finding the Tea Party pitch a hard sell in Northern Virginia. In a district where one in four adult residents work for the federal government, even many Republicans tune out a strict anti-government message.
Follow P.J. Orvetti on Twitter at @PJOinDC