Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell's evolution from Republican up-and-comer to the center of an FBI and grand-jury investigation is bewildering to political observers and a potentially significant loss for his party.
As recently as March, McDonnell was seen as so likely to run for the Republican presidential nomination that an antitax group ran an ad against him in Iowa, where caucuses launch the primary season every four years. But the investigations into an unreported $15,000 gift from a major donor, along with reports of improper billing and staff use at the executive mansion in Richmond, are a serious, possibly insurmountable obstacle to being on a national ticket.
Some Republicans loyal to McDonnell dismiss the significance of the probes. "I think it's a lot of smoke, and I'm 100 percent convinced that he'll be fully cleared at the end of the day," says a Republican strategist familiar with Virginia politics.
Other Republicans, however, say that even in the absence of an indictment, McDonnell won't be running for president. They also say his vice presidential appeal, despite his pivotal purple state, is fading as a result of the ethics questions. A GOP strategist who does not advise McDonnell says a nominee would be asking, " 'Is there any good reason we should not pick this person?' And if that question has a ready answer, that makes it more difficult."
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, puts it more bluntly. "Who wants this baggage? Answer: No one."
Navigating the GOP primary process was already looking complicated for McDonnell, who had championed and signed tax increases as part of his state's first major transportation funding package since 1986. Even as it was hailed in Virginia as a landmark achievement, it sent conservatives into a tailspin and resulted in the Iowa ad.
But it's the ethics problems that pose the more serious threat to McDonnell's political future. "The scandals and the investigations are going to loom much larger in the national discourse" than they do at this point in Virginia, says Mark Rozell, a Southern politics expert at George Mason University.
McDonnell and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were elected in 2009, a year after President Obama's historic win, and both were celebrated as GOP heroes. Eleven days after he was sworn in, McDonnell delivered the party's televised response to Obama's State of the Union address. As chairman of the Republican Governors Association during the 2012 election cycle, he often spoke for his party on TV.
If he exits politics when his single term ends in January, based on his record and home state, McDonnell would leave a void Republicans would be hard-pressed to fill. Virginia has recently become a general-election swing state as valuable as Ohio, and McDonnell's mid-60s job-approval ratings reflect his success in managing the state and appealing to a broad swath of it.
"He really worked hard to reposition himself away from his opponents' characterization of him as a far-right social conservative," Rozell says. "He largely governed from the middle without alienating his conservative base, which is quite an achievement. Not many Republican leaders have been able to accomplish such a feat."
Count Rozell and GOP strategist Whit Ayres among those puzzled by McDonnell's troubles. "There's a glitch somewhere in the system, and I don't know where that is," says Ayres. "There were some decisions made about taking some money that probably weren't the best decisions. But on balance the man has established an enviable record and remains a very popular governor." Ayres says McDonnell will remain a force in his party as long as that popularity endures.
The Washington Post reported in March that Jonnie R. Williams Sr., CEO of Star, paid $15,000 for catering at the wedding of McDonnell's daughter Cailin. McDonnell has said he didn't report the gift as required because it was to his daughter; however, he notated and signed the catering contract, and a refund came to his wife. Star Scientific was a major donor to McDonnell's campaign. The Post said McDonnell's relationship with Williams "has included rides on Williams's corporate jet, personal gifts to the first family and efforts by the governor and his wife to promote the company." McDonnell is now being embarrassed by details about personal products wrongly charged to the state, and staffers used to run errands for him, his wife, and their adult children.
A senior Republican official in Richmond says the administration is going through a difficult period of seeing McDonnell's accomplishments overshadowed by the investigation, but events are still unfolding and the landscape could look different next year. That's when the governor plans to think about what comes next. For the first time since he was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1991, and unfortunately for Republicans, it may involve a life outside politics.