Monday, January 16, 2012

Could Virginia GOP's extreme agenda make McDonnell an albatross around Romney's neck?


Bob McDonnell has made no secret of the fact that he would like to be the GOP's next candidate for Vice President. With the way that the Republican primary process is playing out it's looking more and more like Mitt Romney is going to walk away with the top spot on the GOP ticket. That leads me to ask what impact having Bob McDonnell as his running mate would have on Mitt Romney's chances of winning?

There's an old political rule of thumb that says that during a primary contest a candidate will tend to direct his message towards his party's base so as to heighten his appeal among activists and primary voters, then, having won the nomination, the candidate will then tack towards the political center so as to appeal to as many independent voters as possible. The GOP primary is going to be won by appealing to the right; the presidency will be won by whomever can appeal to the center.

There's another political rule of thumb that says that a presidential candidate's first big decision once they've won their party's nomination is their selection of a running mate. Vice Presidents are selected, not elected--that's a key distinction. The candidate's selection of a running mate speaks volumes about their decision making process and can have a serious impact on their campaign's subsequent fortunes. John McCain's selection of the entirely unvetted and ethically troubled Sarah Palin showed McCain's tendency to make important decisions based on emotion rather than hard analysis. The string of Palin scandals that emerged after her selection helped drag McCain's campaign down to defeat.

If Mitt Romney selected Bob McDonnell as his running mate, what would that tell American voters about Mitt Romney?

If Mitt Romney selected Bob McDonnell it would show American voters that Mitt Romney was afraid that the Republican base was fractured and that he felt that he needed to tack hard right in order to reunify the Republican Party. At the precise moment in time when Romney should be reaching toward the political middle to win independent voters, a decision to select McDonnell would show that Romney still felt insecure about his own primary win, that his victory in the primary was still viewed as illegitimate by the Tea Party, Religious Right, or other factions within the GOP.

For Romney it would mean starting his own general election campaign by explaining McDonnell's graduate thesis to a national audience which might not be as blasé as Virginians used to Pat Robertson were in 2009. Romney and McDonnell would also have to stop and explain a list of newly enacted far right laws passed by the Virginia General Assembly this year and bearing McDonnell's signature as governor. The ink of McDonnell's signature will quite literally not be dry yet on a host of extreme Republican measures when the GOP gathers in Tampa, Florida on August 27, 2012 for their national convention.

That's the tradeoff that Romney will have to decide on. I think Bob McDonnell would be a pretty popular choice among the very hard right of the GOP base, but I also think that independent voters will be turned off by the extreme agenda being pursued on Virginia capitol square right now by the GOP majorities in the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates. Every extreme measure that passes the GOP controlled General Assembly and is signed by Bob McDonnell this year will have to be explained (or explained away) by Mitt Romney.

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