For Republicans eager to reverse their sinking fortunes, Bob McDonnell could hold the key. But you won't find him in any of the traditional positions of power -- and the national media has barely found him at all. He's on the campaign trail in Virginia, where he's the likely GOP nominee for governor.
While his name isn't mentioned in the same breath as Michael Steele, Mitt Romney or Sarah Palin, the pressure Republicans are placing on McDonnell to win this fall is intense. Not only are they counting on him to change their downward trajectory, but they could be relying on him to block the rise of a dread party foe: Terry McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chair and Clinton confidant who has an early edge in fundraising, if not the polls, for the Democratic primary on June 9.
McDonnell is steering clear of potentially explosive topics like abortion, gay marriage and gun rights.
"A lot of people believe the road to the resurgence of the Republican cause goes through Virginia. And I accept that. A lot of people understand that if we win this year, we can create a scenario like 1993," McDonnell told Hotline editors last week, referring to GOP gubernatorial wins that year in Virginia and New Jersey that preceded the Republican revolution on Capitol Hill in 1994. "I think people would like to see that scenario and believe that if we can gain the momentum, it will open some things up on the federal level."
McDonnell, 54, a former state attorney general, has his work cut out for him -- and not just because of his awkward comparison of himself to former Sen. George Allen (who won the '93 governor's race). Republicans may still be smarting from their national defeat last fall, but the party has been in retreat in Virginia for a decade. Since the last GOP governor was elected in 1997, the party has lost the state Senate majority, a slew of state House seats and both U.S. Senate seats. Last fall, they lost the majority of congressional seats. Barack Obama last fall became the first Democrat to carry the Old Dominion since 1964.
Sure, New Jersey will also elect a governor this year. But Democrats, riding Obama's momentum, clearly hope to make Virginia the crown jewel in their 50-state strategy. Leading that charge: Gov. Tim Kaine, who now chairs the DNC.
"We've had a tough run the last eight years," McDonnell said, "no question about it."
McDonnell does, however, have several things going his way. He's the only candidate from either party who has been elected statewide. And while Republicans are united behind him, Democrats are sharply divided between three candidates: McAuliffe, former state Del. Brian Moran and state Sen. Creigh Deeds, who narrowly lost the attorney general race to McDonnell in 2005. McDonnell had more than $3.5 million in the bank in early April, far more than any Democrat, and he recently won plaudits for hiring a well-connected party strategist, former Republican National Committee chair and Bush White House adviser Ed Gillespie, to oversee his campaign.
As part of his outreach to young voters -- many of whom voted for Obama, he notes -- he also hired the firm that handled the Obama campaign's sophisticated text messaging project last year. (A nice move, perhaps, but one that likely pales in comparison to his sharp critiques of the president -- most recently, when he said his alma mater Notre Dame should deny Obama an honorary degree when he speaks there next month).
Still, experts agree, McDonnell could play a crucial role in reviving his ailing party. "Because the transformation is so new, the concrete hasn't set," said the University of Virginia's Larry Sabato. "If Republicans can regain the momentum this November, it will suggest that they can make a run at Obama in 2012, not to mention the Senate and House seats they've lost."
McDonnell hails from the wing of his party that's under the most relentless attack. A retired Army officer who was groomed for politics at the Rev. Pat Robertson's Regent University law school, McDonnell compiled a staunchly conservative voting record during seven terms in the state House, especially on social issues.
"The question becomes, can he transform himself the way the Republican Party has to transform itself?" Sabato said. "He needs to de-emphasize the social issues, break his connection with Robertson and run as a moderate conservative. Virginia will still vote for a moderate conservative, but it's not going to support a hard-right candidate."
Indeed, McDonnell is making every effort to do so. Taking a page from the playbook of Sen. Mark Warner, a popular Democrat whose strategic lurch to the political middle helped him win the 2001 gubernatorial race, he's steering clear this year of potentially explosive topics like abortion, gay marriage and gun rights. Much as Warner targeted the rural reaches of southwest Virginia in 2001, McDonnell is making a play this year for the Democratic stronghold of Northern Virginia, where, he frequently notes, he and his wife, Maureen, were raised. (Maureen, incidentally, was a Washington Redskinette during the 1970s.)
"I'm the original Fairfax County candidate," he joked -- a pointed jab at McAuliffe and Moran, who both moved to Northern Virginia after growing up in the Northeast.
Still, as his party's presumptive nominee, McDonnell already has a bull's-eye on his back, drawing constant fire from Democrats who portray him as a darling of social conservatives. "A leopard cannot change their spots even if they run for governor," said Richard Cranwell, the state Democratic Party chairman. Earlier this month, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-independent, financed a round of TV ads attacking McDonnell on gun control.
Meanwhile, McDonnell is trying to distance Warner from the Democratic Party he built. While he acknowledged that Warner is a skilled pol who helped Democrats score big gains, he said the field of Democrats running for governor this year doesn't match up. "If you see how quickly they're moving to the left, this is not the same type of candidate that ran in 2001," he said. As for Kaine, McDonnell added, "he is the chief partisan now in the country for the Democrats. So he will be the voice of Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Barack Obama. That's not exactly Mark Warner's platform."
In many ways, as McDonnell said last week at the 61st annual Shad Planking political picnic in rural Wakefield, being a Republican in Virginia right now is like being a shad -- "you have to swim upstream." But McDonnell does have one aspect of history on his side. Since 1972, the party that wins the White House has lost the Virginia governor's race the following year.
"My job," he said, "is to keep that going for four more years."
Republicans around the country think his "job" is even bigger.