When the Democrats seized control of the Virginia state Senate in 2007, then-Gov. Tim Kaine proclaimed that "Old Virginny is dead." Now that Republicans have, pending a likely recount, reclaimed effective control of the Senate—a 20-20 tie, with the Republican lieutenant governor breaking ties—the question is whether Old Virginny will storm back with a vengeance. And if so, what that will mean for the vice presidential prospects of Gov. Bob McDonnell.
McDonnell has kept himself in the mix of potential GOP running mates by projecting the image of a business-minded right-of-center executive—a far cry from his earlier profile as a committed social conservative who at age 34 wrote a thesis describing working women as "detrimental" to the family and inveighing against "cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators." Key to this new image is that McDonnell has been able to keep distance between himself and the religious right and Tea Party elements in the legislature. How? By relying on the Democrats controlling the Senate to keep the most extreme legislation from reaching his desk. With Senate Democrats running interference, McDonnell has stayed above the fray, aided further by arch-conservative Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who has served as a convenient foil for McDonnell.
It remains to be seen how much extreme legislation will make it to McDonnell's desk, since Republicans may still have trouble getting bills out of committee in a split chamber. But the odds of incendiary bills winning legislative passage have increased, and McDonnell will likely be forced to sign bills that could shatter his carefully honed profile or risk angering rank and file conservatives. I asked Del. David Englin, an Alexandria Democrat, what sort of bills percolating among conservatives could slip through now, and he offered up a broad array: "personhood" legislation similar to what Mississippi voters rejected yesterday; "any number of other issues around restricting a woman's right to choose"; anti-gay legislation, which has been noticeably absent since the start of McDonnell's term, when the state's public colleges rebelled against a new state edict on benefits for domestic partners; legislation to restrict voter access at the polls; and legislation further loosening Virginia's already lax gun laws, such as legislation that would decree that the federal "commerce clause" does not apply to firearms sold within Virginia, thus nullifying federal firearm laws such as laws regarding the manufacture of assault weapons.
"If the current crop of Tea Party Republicans have more ability to move their agenda and get it to Gov. McDonnell's desk, all of a sudden it's going to be very difficult for him to maintain his image as a moderate Republican technocrat," Englin said. "People will see that at heart he's a right-wing social crusader—those are his roots."