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McDonnell's Power Surge

Sans cowboy boots and snuff, the latest GOP takeover is kinder, gentler.



As GOP resurgences go, this one comes quick and unequivocal, barely an hour after the polls closed Tuesday night. By 8 o'clock Bob McDonnell is declared Virginia's next governor and the party heads are in full Republican surge mode, a la 1993, complete with cameos from former governors George Allen -- who won the Executive Mansion a year before the Newt Gingrich-led Congressional takeover in 1994 -- and ultra-conservative bad boy Jim Gilmore.

But make no mistake, this is McDonnell's party now. The ghosts from GOP's past may have come to gloat on a night when Republicans swept all three statewide offices by a nearly 60-40 margin -- governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general -- but this is McDonnell's victory, and he did it without cowboy-booting the competition.

“Creigh Deeds said no; Bob McDonnell said, ‘Yes we can,'” echoes Republican Delegate Bill Janis, kicking off the election night festivities at the Richmond Marriott. “Yes we can!”

The message isn't so subtle. McDonnell and the Republicans managed to rebrand the GOP, moving the party away from its far-right social agenda and the anti-Obama catcalls of Fox News in a few short months. The new surge is all the talk Tuesday night -- the “warning shot,” crows U.S. Rep Eric Cantor -- but this isn't the Allen-Gilmore lineage.

This new party was message-oriented and respectful, eschewing the screaming conservatives on the Hill. It was polite, in fact. A billboard for Powhatan Delegate Lee Ware, who looks alarmingly like a younger Newt, whispered: “Principled. Effective. Courteous.” McDonnell never personally attacked Obama and at times agreed with his policies (charter schools, for instance) and even congratulated his Nobel Prize.

Ripping a page or two from former governor and now U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, the Republicans rode to victory by appealing to the middle, pushing Reaganesque fiscal conservatism and keeping a safe distance from abortion and gay marriage.

McDonnell and Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling make sure to open their hearts to those “conservative Democrats” abandoned by their own party. In the ever-puzzling but no less impressive coerced endorsement, McDonnell has BET co-founder Sheila Johnson -- his “favorite Democrat” -- on the stage with him Tuesday night without any significant irony.

This isn't Allen's take-no-prisoners party of the mid-1990s, when he vowed to knock the Democrats' “soft teeth down their whiny throats.”

Tuesday night, Allen is all smiles and gleaming, talking of the many similarities between the surges of 1993 and 2009. “I just think there are so many parallels and similarities,” Allen says, adding the caveat that the momentum shifted a bit quicker. He recalls attending Obama's inauguration and all the euphoria, and then the sudden turn. “The political climate has really changed in the last five months.”

Something definitely turned in Virginia, but not in the way the national pundits ascribe. Surely the Republican victories were influenced by the anti-Obama movement, the tea parties, the Pelosi-bashers, but McDonnell's campaign was about jobs and low taxes -- and it ushered him into the Executive Mansion.

“It can be a conservative party, but it can also be a pragmatic party,” Bob Holsworth, the longtime political analyst, says of the McDonnell credo.

Indeed. And it just might have kicked off a kinder, gentler Republican revolution this time. Gilmore and Allen were on the stage Tuesday night, but they are a long ways away from front and center. 

“Bob McDonnell has led us to victory after eight dark years in the wilderness,” Cantor tells the gathered conservative party-mongers. “That Republican resurgence, that revolution, has begun right here in Virginia.”

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