You have to sort of feel bad for Bob McDonnell. Coming up through the ranks of the Virginia Republican Party, it was never a liability that he took the most reflexively right-wing position on social issues. And yet he now may be denied the prize he has desperately sought, the Republican vice-presidential nomination, because of his anti–women’s rights extremism.
McDonnell was elected governor of the mid-sized swing state next to the nation’s capital in 2009 and he was pegged as a future leader of the GOP. Just months after he won the gubernatorial race over Democrat Creigh Deeds, he was selected to deliver the Republicans’ official response to President Obama’s 2010 State of the Union. Like most responses to the State of the Union, it wasn’t very memorable, but he managed not to embarrass himself and damage his national prospects in the way that Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal did in 2009.
McDonnell was primed to be a top contender for the vice-presidential slot. He is known in his state as a canny political operator and his Southern accent lends folksiness to an affable but otherwise slightly staid speaking style. Unlike some other potential vice-presidential prospects—Jindal, for example, Rick Perry—McDonnell endorse Mitt Romney and campaigned with him in early primary states such as South Carolina.
Among ardent conservatives, McDonnell’s star has continued to rise. On Friday he gave the keynote address at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Chicago, which The Atlantic’s Molly Ball writes, “served as a cattle call of sorts for a handful of potential vice-presidential contenders from across the country.” Unlike many speakers McDonnell made a full surrogate’s case for Romney. He also has the virtue of being gray enough that, unlike, say, Chris Christie, he won’t generate too much excitement among the right wing base and outshine the top of the ticket as Sarah Palin did to John McCain. “If the veepstakes are indeed to be a competition to be the most inoffensive possible choice, McDonnell ought to be in the running,” Ball concludes.
But this weekend Politico reported that McDonnell isn’t in the running at all. Citing “the thinking of people that Romney listens to on every other question,” Mike Allen reports that there are four leading finalists: Senator Rob Portman (OH), Tim Pawlenty, former Minnesota governor and presidential candidate, Senator Marco Rubio (FL), Senator John Thune (SD). And, Allen adds, “Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, on WTOP’s ‘Ask the Governor’ on May 29: 'I am not being vetted by [Romney’s] campaign.'”
What happened? It's certainly not for lack of effort on McDonnell’s part. He recently went so far as to buy time for positive ads touting his record, in the hopes of boosting his approval rating, despite not being up for re-election. Political reporters suspected he was trying to burnish his vice-presidential credentials.
Rather, he got boxed in by his own party’s extremism. “One of the main reasons he’s been successful in Virginia is he’s come across as someone who has mostly gone after pragmatic goals,” says Geoff Skelley, political analyst at University of Virginia Center for Politics. “Of course, that’s changed in the last few months.” Skelley is referring to the new law in Virginia that will infantilize adult women by making them submit to a medically unnecessary ultrasound examination before getting an abortion. The bill triggered national outrage before McDonnell signed it into law and, as Skelley notes, “it would be brought up a lot if he was chosen for vice-president.” Given Romney’s and the Republican Party’s problems attracting women voters, that is the last thing they need.
A Catholic, McDonnell attended parochial schools, Notre Dame University and Pat Robertson’s Regent University for Law School. At the time McDonnell attended Regent it was known as the Christian Broadcasting School of Law. It is so intensely theological that it is considered a politically risky statement for a presidential to merely speak there, as Mitt Romney recently did. As part of his master’s thesis, the Washington Post reported in 2009, “[McDonnell] 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.”
These are the values McDonnell brought to public office. “He’s a believer,” says one Virginia Democratic operative. “I think it was a large motivation of his to get into public life.”
As the Post noted in 2009, he transferred these views directly into legislative proposals. His thesis laid out:
A 15-point action plan that McDonnell said the Republican Party should follow to protect American families—a vision that he started to put into action soon after he was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates.
During his 14 years in the General Assembly, McDonnell pursued at least 10 of the policy goals he laid out in that research paper, including abortion restrictions, covenant marriage, school vouchers and tax policies to favor his view of the traditional family. In 2001, he voted against a resolution in support of ending wage discrimination between men and women.
But when running for governor McDonnell emphasized his fiscal rather than social conservatism. As Governor he has pursued the same failed policies of social disinvestment that Romney champions. “Economically he’s been a mainline Tea Party right wing Republican,” says Brian Coy, communications director for the Virginia Democratic Part. “He is staunchly anti-tax, anti-investment. He had four years to solve our transportation crisis: we need a sustained dedicated source of revenue and he hasn’t even proposed a solution. He just suggested borrowing $3 billion to build some roads. That won’t even meet our needs, and we’ll be paying it off for 25 years.” McDonnell has also failed to continue Governor Tim Kaine’s efforts to extend the Washington, D.C. Metro system further in the suburbs in Northern Virginia. Rather than ameliorating traffic clogged roads, aid economic growth, or do anything good for the environment, McDonnell is sitting on his hands.
Perhaps that’s why polls show adding him to the ticket would not help Romney in Virginia. Nonetheless, the Romney campaign continues to at least count on McDonnell as a valuable surrogate. They frequently deploy statements from him and use him on conference calls. The Democratic National Committee recently struck a preemptive blow against a national role for McDonnell, organizing a call for reporters with Representative Gwen Moore (WI) and Virginia State Senator Louise Lucas to “Expose Scott Walker, Bob McDonnell and Mitt Romney as Too Extreme for America.” But McDonnell already exposed himself and his national hopes may have been ended because of it.