How the Virginia GOP Could Tank Bob McDonnell's Political Fortunes

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So long as Democrats held onto the Virginia senate, the governor was protected from the worst impulses of the right. All that is coming to an end.

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State mandated-transvaginal probes! Well Virginia, you certainly know how to get a gal's attention. This weekend I went home to Virginia, partly to give my parents their granddaughter fix but partly to survey the political landscape. My home state has suddenly become the focus of national attention due to extreme anti-woman legislation that looks ready to be passed by the Republican legislature and could yet be signed into law by Republican Governor and vice presidential hopeful Bob McDonnell. The truth is that Virginia's lady problems go way beyond what I like to call PAP (Probes and Personhood).

For years, a slim Democratic margin in the Virginia Senate and a hold on the governorship kept extreme legislation from becoming law. But since Republicans took over both chambers and the governor's mansion, each bill has been more hard-edged than the last. With PAP, the Virginia GOP seem to finally have crossed a line -- and it may well doom McDonnell's national ambitions.

In 2009, the Democratic nominee for governor, Creigh Deeds, was swept away by a rising tide of anti-Obama Tea Party fervor and Bob McDonnell became governor, pledging to focus like a laser on jobs. In fact, his campaign slogan was "Bob's for Jobs." Poor Creigh didn't stand a chance against someone whose name actually rhymed with jobs! Democrats, however, held onto the State Senate by a slim two-seat margin. The divided government was good for McDonnell, who clearly harbors national ambitions for 2012 and beyond. The Democratic Senate acted as a levee holding back the steady flow of extreme legislation coming out of the Republican House of Delegates. In addition to keeping the worst laws off the books, the Democratic Senate unknowingly did a favor for Bob McDonnell by saving him from becoming the critical deciding factor between Republican red-meat radicalism and mainstream sentiment in an increasingly purple state.

As a result, McDonnell saw his approval ratings soar and he became one of the most popular governors in the country. This is not an easy feat for any swing state governor. In fact, McDonnell and New Mexico's Susana Martinez are the only Republican swing state governors in the country who have maintained high approval ratings. The key to McDonnell and Martinez's success has almost certainly been divided government. While Ohio's John Kasich, Wisconsin's Scott Walker, Florida's Rick Scott and Michigan's Rick Snyder have all become the public face of the most controversial aspects of their party's agenda thanks to the union-busting bills pushed by their Republican-dominated legislatures, McDonnell and Martinez have been able to look centrist, pragmatic and reasonable. The Republican presidential contenders have amply demonstrated the high-wire act that national GOP hopefuls must execute: To be successful, one must pull off the near-impossible feat of maintaining enough mainstream appeal to run credibly in a general election while placating the far-right reaches of the Tea Party and social conservative movements.

For a while, it looked like McDonnell would be able to pull off the seemingly impossible, but things have gotten quite a bit trickier for him since Republicans took control of the Virginia Senate in 2011. It happened by the slimmest of margins. Veteran Democratic Senator Edd Houck lost his reelection bid by a mere 226 votes. This resulted in a 20-20 tie in the Virginia Senate, with effective control going to the Republicans, since the tie-breaking vote was held by the Republican Lieutenant Governor, Bill Bolling. Since the new members were sworn in, all hell has broken loose.

Republicans have let loose a torrent of hard-right legislation. Drug testing for welfare recipients; restrictive voter ID laws designed to disenfranchise poor and minority communities; arbitrary standards designed to force the closure of abortion clinics; harsh anti-immigrant legislation which arguably goes further than SB 1070 in Arizona. All of these bills passed over the objections of Democrats but failed to ignite a firestorm that could really damage McDonnell. Indeed, he looked like he just might pull off the impossible balancing act, until now. Overconfident in their power, Republicans took one step too far when they insisted that women who are seeking an abortion undergo an ultrasound that shows the fetus or picks up its heart-beat, which in most cases can only be detected in the first trimester with an invasive and otherwise medically unnecessary vaginal ultrasound. Finally, ladies and gentlemen, we have our firestorm.

Had their timing been a bit better, McDonnell and the Virginia Republicans would probably have gotten the PAP through with little attention as well. But coinciding with the Susan G. Komen foundation's dramatic elimination and reinstatement of Planned Parenthood funding, the Catholic Church's stepped up anti-birth control advocacy, and culture warrior extraordinaire Rick Santorum's second surge, state-mandated vaginal probes just couldn't be ignored. Unless something changes, the PAP bills are likely to be headed to McDonnell's desk this week at which time he will be faced with a no-win situation. Right now, McDonnell is an appealing vice presidential pick for Mitt Romney because he is non-controversial, and highly popular in a swing state. His presence on the ballot could also help Republican George Allen of "macaca" fame win the open U.S. Senate seat in Virginia being vacated by Jim Webb.

If McDonnell signs the PAP bills, he will become the face of extremism and overreach in Virginia, see a corresponding drop in popularity, and be less likely to help Romney and Allen win Virginia. If he refuses to sign the bills, he will undoubtedly enrage the culture-warriors that Romney will be hoping to placate with his VP pick. Just this week Romney was forced to reassure voters that his VP pick would be "conservative to the core." Signing the bills could also damage McDonnell's presidential chances down the road. Most people in the country don't yet know McDonnell. If their introduction to him is as the governor who signed state mandated vaginal probes into law, well, let's just say he may have trouble appealing to women voters.

In fact, McDonnell is already on ice with female voters. He wrote a charming thesis for his master's degree at Pat Robertson's Regent University that included such gems as arguing that government policy should favor married couples over "cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators" and called a Supreme Court decision legalizing contraception for said fornicators "illogical." (He also had some choice lines about radical feminists that would make a Rick Santorum proud.) McDonnell's Democratic opponent tried to make an issue of the thesis in 2009 but wasn't able to get much traction due to voters overriding concerns about the economy and a general backlash against Democrats. The combination, however, of McDonnell's signature on the PAP bills and his previous statements about women could very well prove a death knell for his national ambitions.

McDonnell just got back from stumping for Mitt Romney in Michigan. I'd suggest that if he wants to have any chance of turning his stumping into a vice presidential "job for Bob," he'd better start begging some Republican state senators to do his dirty work for him and make sure these bills never reach his desk.

Image credit: REUTERS/Jason Reed

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Krystal Ball is a Democratic strategist and 2010 candidate for a U.S. House seat from Virginia. She is a commentator on politics for MSNBC and at the Huffington Post. She can be found online on Facebook and at Krystalonline.com.

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