McDonnell Thesis Heats Up Virginia Governor's Race

Democrats hope the controversy will be an opening for Democrat Creigh Deeds.

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Inside the beltway, Democrats have been on the defensive. Almost a year after Barack Obama won the White House and Democrats swept to victory across the country, Republicans, it seems, have managed to seize the narrative over healthcare, cap-and-trade, and government spending—an advantage the White House sought to counter with Obama's healthcare speech last night. Obama's approval ratings have gone from soaring to souring, with the most immediate political consequence being two governor's races, New Jersey and Virginia, where Republican contenders have built surprising leads.

But in Virginia, Democrats may have caught a break earlier this month when Republican Bob McDonnell hit his first speed bump. The Washington Post revealed a 20-year-old graduate thesis by McDonnell that outlined his vision for how the government could strengthen the "traditional family" and argued against working women, abortion, and gay rights.

The thesis, written while McDonnell was at Virginia Beach's evangelical Regent University pursuing degrees in public policy and law, took a far-right approach on a number of social issues. Calling feminism one of the "real enemies of the traditional family," McDonnell wrote that working women were "detrimental" to family values. He also wrote that a 1972 Supreme Court decision that allowed unmarried couples to use contraception was "illogical," that the government should "fight any attempts to redefine family by allowing special rights for homosexuals or single-parent unwed mothers," and that government should "statutorily and procedurally prefer married couples over cohabitators, homosexuals, or fornicators."

Democrat Creigh Deeds seized on the news, using it to back up the argument he'd been deploying all along: McDonnell was not the moderate that he portrayed himself to be in trying to appeal to voters who have moved away from the state's Old South conservative roots. In response, McDonnell held a conference call with reporters. "Like everybody, my views on many issues have changed as I have gotten older," he said. For example, the government shouldn't discriminate based on sexual orientation, he said, and he no longer believes women should not work.

But opponents argue that his legislative record shows an imprint of his earlier stance, such as when he voted down a 2001 resolution that supported ending wage discrimination by gender. They also point out that he was 34, rather than a youthful student, when he wrote the thesis.

The thesis's resurfacing could lose McDonnell moderate voters. But he could also alienate his conservative base by repudiating too much of his paper. "This is a lose-lose story for McDonnell," says Steve Farnsworth, a Virginia politics expert and communications professor at George Mason University. "The more he defends the thesis, the more he seems out of touch with today's Virginia. The more he walks away from the thesis, the more he can be tagged as a flip-flopper."

But in the two weeks since the scandal has broken, his campaign has handled it well, seeking to redirect the debate toward the issues at hand. And in a new twist, some muckraking by the Weekly Standard has found that Deeds himself once opposed gay rights. In 1999, he took out a full-page campaign advertisement in a local newspaper saying "No special rights for gays." He wrote: "I don't believe in discrimination, but I don't believe in special rights for anyone" and added that he'd never voted to allow medical insurance—or any other benefit—for gay partners. In the same year, Deeds' spokesman told the Staunton Daily News Leader, "Mr. Deeds does not support gay rights."

All of that, it seems, has helped keep damage to a minimum. A SurveyUSA poll shows that while McDonnell had a 15 percentage point lead in late July, it's now 12 points. With two months to go until the election, though, there's plenty of time for the Deeds campaign to drive home any doubts.