The conviction of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife on public corruption charges today adds to the implosion of the Republican Party in a state that just two years ago was considered a battleground in the presidential race.
The McDonnells’ association with wealthy businessman Jonnie Williams Sr., who a jury found gave more than $170,000 in gifts to the couple in exchange for special government treatment, removes from the political scene the state’s highest-profile Republican. McDonnell now faces prison time.
The federal investigation was a distraction to the party’s candidates in the state’s 2013 election, which was disastrous for the party. While a partial U.S. government shutdown in Washington and other self-inflicted wounds contributed to their losses, the damage in Virginia was thorough and complete.
Democrats now hold both U.S. Senate seats in Virginia and all three statewide constitutional offices — governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general — for the first time in more than 40 years.
“To win we not only have to unite our team, we have to broaden our appeal,” said Steve Stombres, a former Fairfax City Council member who was chief of staff to Virginia Republican Eric Cantor when he was the House majority leader.
“Republicans can be and ought to be competitive in statewide elections. We have not won a statewide election in a while,” Stombres said.
In this year’s U.S. Senate race in Virginia, the party’s best hope may be avoiding a landslide defeat.
Former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie is lagging in his campaign to unseat Mark Warner, whose election as governor in 2001 and senator in 2008 contributed to the Democratic surge in Virginia.
While Gillespie isn’t favored to win, a respectable showing could bolster his standing within the party he once led and position him for a second bid for major political office, including governor.
Still, a Warner victory would make it four Senate victories in a row for Democrats in Virginia. Democrat Tim Kaine holds the state’s other Senate seat.
As recently as 2006, Republicans held four of the five offices, including both Senate seats. John Warner retired after the 2008 election following 30 years in the Senate, and George Allen — a former governor also once mentioned as a potential candidate for president or vice president — was defeated for re-election in 2006 by Democrat Jim Webb.
“Integrity is paramount in public service and for the public trust,” Allen said in a statement on his Facebook page about the convictions. “This whole matter has been a stunningly sad and disturbing trial for Virginia regardless of one’s political persuasion.”
Virginia voted Democratic in the past two elections after siding with the Republicans in each of the previous 10 White House elections, the only state in the nation with that record.
The state came closest to matching the national vote percentages in the 2012 presidential election, calling attention to its status as a quintessential swing state that probably will draw campaign visits from 2016 presidential candidates and their surrogates.
Republicans aren’t completely shut out of the Virginia political scene. The U.S. House and the state legislature, two institutions in which the party was able to draw its own district boundary lines, remain bright spots.
One test of the Republican Party’s ability to recover from the McDonnell debacle will come in the Nov. 4 election in Virginia’s 10th District, a politically competitive area that includes suburbs and exurbs near Washington.
Representative Frank Wolf, the area’s Republican incumbent, is retiring after 34 years in office. The race to succeed him is between Republican Barbara Comstock, a member of the state House of Delegates, and Democrat John Foust, a member of the board of supervisors in Fairfax County. Political analysts, including the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics in Charlottesville, give Comstock the edge.
Wolf’s congressional district is among eight controlled by Republicans out of 11 in the state. The total includes the Republican-leaning Richmond-area district formerly held by Cantor, who was defeated in a June primary by a Tea Party-aligned challenger and has since resigned.