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Focus | Tensions over social policy take center stage

Story by Chris Graham

Bob McDonnell led the GOP sweep in the 2009 state races and a six-seat Republican Party pickup in the House of Delegates with his move early in the ’09 election cycle to stake his campaign and by extension the campaigns of Republican candidates across Virginia on the economy and jobs to appeal to Virginia’s sizable independent-voter population.

But the religious right, which according to exit polls made up roughly half of McDonnell’s winning voter coalition, is making sure the governor-elect remembers to dance with the ones that brung him, in a manner of speaking.

“Over the next few months, Gov.-elect McDonnell will be selecting key advisors, Cabinet members and a multitude of officials. Please pray that he appoints qualified, principled conservatives to those key positions, the impact of which will go on well after he leaves office. It is often said, ‘personnel is policy,’ so selecting those he will take counsel from in the years ahead is crucial for the governor-elect,” said Victoria Cobb, president and CEO of the Richmond-based conservative social-policy group, The Family Foundation of Virginia, in a statement on the organization’s website posted on Nov. 4, the day after the state elections.

A Washington Post report also on Nov. 4 included an interview with Cobb where she seemed to be sending through the Post a message to that same effect to McDonnell. “The concern is, is he going to deliver on issues that have always been important to him based on his record?” Cobb told the Post in the interview. “I think you need to look at him in terms of what he has said to the faith community, what he has said to churches, answers he has given on voter guides. It doesn’t have to be his primary focus for people to believe he will support our priorities. He has always been seen as a champion of the family cause.”

There seems to be an interesting bit of tension there in the two statements from Cobb, a tension that could play itself out on the public stage as Republican strategists try to keep the base happy while also not appearing to overreach and risk losing the independents whose swing back in their favor fueled their victories at the polls two weeks ago.

“It will be interesting to see how other Republicans respond to this,” said political scientist Bob Holsworth, the founder and president of Virginia Tomorrow. “The Republican Party is going to have to, in a number of ways, cope with the tensions that are likely to develop. Successful parties do that. Unsuccessful parties get tied up in knots.”

Moderates in the GOP fold are doing what they can to push back from the center-right. David Lampo, the vice president of the Log Cabin Republican Club of Virginia, a coalition of LGBT Republicans, advised McDonnell in an op-ed published on VirginiaPoliticsToday.com last week not to “lose sight of the kind of campaign that led to its victory.”

“It appears that Gov.-elect McDonnell and his team aren’t buying the right-wing spin. The new governor stated at his post-election news conference that he will govern as he campaigned, someone focused on the economic issues that unite Republicans. And most people around the new governor know that one of the keys to victory was adopting a position of social tolerance, despite what the candidate’s personal views might be,” Lampo wrote.

“Any attempt to reunite Republican governance with the intolerant agenda of the far right will once again push moderates and independents back into the Democratic column. And it will energize the pro-tolerance 18-30 voters, whose participation in this latest election plummeted from 2008, to come out once again for the Democrats,” Lampo wrote. “The lesson from this month’s election is crystal clear, but Republicans who truly believe in basing government on traditional Republican principles instead of their own personal religious values will have to stay vigilant against those who would take us back to the culture wars and lost elections of the past decade. That fight isn’t over. In fact, it’s only just begun.”

There’s likely to be tension over this even within the religious right. Dean Welty of the Harrisonburg-based Valley Family Forum thinks voter turnout was high among values voters on the right because McDonnell and Attorney General-elect Ken Cuccinelli are known to the right as being authentic on social issues.

“When you have people elected who share those values, it is an encouragement. I think the expectation is that there will be a warmer reception for us,” Welty said, calling the Republican sweeps “a mandate for change” before acknowledging the tension within the right over the pace of change that should be expected.

“There is always a tension between going for what you really want as an end game and the steps that are required to getting there. Even within the pro-life community, there is that tension. Do we go for legislation that will challenge Roe v. Wade, risk the chance that the Supreme Court will get it, and issue a decision supportive of Roe v. Wade, and thereby harden the precedents? There is justifiable caution there. The tension that results is, Shall we continue these incremental steps that we’ve been using in the General Assembly, or shall we take it a step further? Is now the time to try a new approach?” Welty said.

Maybe, maybe not – not with the State Senate still being seen as a roadblock by social conservatives. Republicans are sure to try to pick off a Democratic senator to bring the current 21-19 majority for the Senate Democratic Caucus into a 20-20 split that would give the GOP caucus effective control with Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling casting the tiebreaking vote on organizational issues. But the Republican-majority State Senate of the early part of the 2000s decade wasn’t exactly seen as being favorable to the social-conservative cause, either.

“Either way, the State Senate is still going to be a hurdle that Republicans will have to try to leap over if they want to try to put in any new social legislation,” said UVa. Center for Politics analyst Isaac Wood. “I think that’s really what Bob McDonnell will look at. I don’t see him as somebody who will take up arms in a social crusade if it’s ultimately going to be unsuccessful.”

Holsworth’s take: “I don’t see that McDonnell is going to develop a priority list of social issues right now. I think he’s likely to present a gubernatorial agenda very consistent with his campaign. But at the same time, I think social conservatives will believe, and I think correctly, that they have an ally in the governor’s office, and they will put forward social legislation,” Holsworth said.
“Republicans in the legislature who are social conservatives are going to feel that the election was a very good election for them, and my guess is they are certainly going to promote some issues that they care about in the next legislative session. I think that’s even more likely because there’s not much place you can go on issues that cost money,” Holsworth said.


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