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Virginia Republicans Positioning for Future Elections
In 2011, Virginia Republicans grabbed control of the state government and, moving to the extreme right, they resurrected once-thought half-dead social issues, but as the 2013 General Assembly has gotten under way, they seem to be softening their rhetoric, showing some signs of bi-partisanship and lessening their push on social issues legislative.
In the 2009 election, Republican Robert F. “Bob” McDonnell handily beat Democrat Creigh Deeds for the Governorship by a margin of 59 to 41 percent, the highest percentage of the vote for governor since 1961. Following him into office were Attorney General Kenneth “Ken” Cuccinelli and Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling.
Surprisingly, Governor McDonnell has been more moderate than his controversial thesis, which emerged during his campaign, suggests. His “2012 legislative agenda,” according to governor.virginia.gov/news website, “received broad bipartisan support with 88 percent of his initiatives passing the General Assembly.” His agenda focused on job creation, K-12 education, higher education, pension system reform, transportation, veteran issues, public safety, energy, and government reform.
But Cuccinelli took a different path: he came out of the box flexing his political muscles and swinging his conservative fists. The Washington Times stated that he is “the most overly partisan Attorney General in Virginia’s history, has waged war on Obamacare, harassed climate-change scientists, sanctioned discrimination against homosexuals and embraced Arizona’s…immigration law.”
Following the 2010 census, 2011 was reapportionment year. Since the GOP controlled the state government, Republican Governor Bob McDonnell had the upper hand in redrawing the congressional districts—and redrawing the districts, he did. The district lines are ugly, causing some candidates to travel almost half the length of the state during their campaigns. But he achieved his purpose: His gerrymandered districts enabled Republicans to win both the House of Delegates, in which they already had the vast majority, and the State Senate, in which Democrats had the majority by 4 (22-18). Winning four of the democratic seats, the election ended with a 20-20 tie in the Senate, with Republican Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling serving as tiebreaker.
Having complete control of state government, Republicans pivoted to the extreme right on social issues and attracted national criticism when they passed an invasive ultrasound law. With the help of the Governor, however, the law was changed to an external procedure before it was signed into law. The House also passed a personhood amendment, but the Senate killed it.
Now, as the 2013 General Assembly gets underway, Virginia Republicans seem to be shaking the etch-a-sketch to avoid catastrophe in the next election. They are running away from their fight over social issues and trying to focus, this time, on Governor McDonnell’s legislative agenda. But Democrats vowed to keep the controversial laws before the General Assembly. In fact, they filed bills to overturn the ultrasound law and the law that forces abortion clinics to meet the same standards as hospital. In committees, however, the GOP has already squashed measures to repeal the laws, but at least Republicans are acting civil—and not altogether solidly aligned. “One Republican [Senator Harry Blevins] crossed over and joined the seven Democrats to stop a bill that would have ended state Medicaid funding for abortion for women with fetuses deemed unable to survive if carried to term,” Todd Allen Wilson wrote in the Daily Press.
The Senate Court of Justice Committee has rejected gun control bills offered by Democrats, but Republicans are not as hostile this time around. In fact, some are seeking to find common ground. Wilson wrote, “After rejecting most gun control efforts by Senate Democrats, Republicans reached across the aisle Friday in an attempt to hammer out a deal on closing gun show loopholes on background checks for firearms purchase.” The compromise passed, but later fell apart. But Republican Senator Bill Stanley promised to keep working over the weekend with Democratic Senator Don McEachin to fashion a compromise bill the committee will be able to hear Monday.
After President Obama won Virginia for the second time and after former Governor George Allen lost to former Governor Tim Cain in the U.S. Senatorial race, Republicans know that the political landscape in Virginia has changed tremendously. According to a CNN exit poll, 45 percent of voters in Virginia identify as moderates, substantially more than either conservatives or liberals.
Cuccinelli knows, now, that his worldview demonstrated during his term as Attorney General is far from that of Virginia, and he needs to pivot to the center as he campaigns for the governor’s office. Although the Democratic bill to amend Virginia’s constitution to allow nonviolent felons to have their voting rights restored was rejected by committee, Cuccinelli joined Governor McDonnell in supporting it. That was indeed a strange twist for him.
Before Cuccinelli began his quest for the governor’s office, he had already written a book entitled The Last Line of Defense: The New Fight for American Liberty to come out February 12, according to James Hohmann of Politico. “The synopsis provided by the publisher notes that Cuccinelli was the first state attorney general to argue in federal court against Obamacare, as well as ‘an unapologetic defender of the Constitution, and a man admirers and detractors alike said ‘was tea party long before there was a Tea Party.’” His book, when written, “was intended in part to rally support from the base during the nomination process,” but Bill Bolling suspended his campaign and is considering an independent run for governor. Now that polls show that the term “tea party” has become “more politically-perilous over the last three years” and that the group “is viewed unfavorably by many independents in places like Northern Virginia suburbs,” his book may become a liability rather than an asset.
With the 2013 governor’s race, 2014 the midterm elections, and the 2016 presidential election looming on the horizon during the next four years, Republicans are trying to reposition themselves to meet the test of a more moderate state. The question is: Will they be able to do it?
But time will tell.