McDonnell's graduate thesis roils Virginia governor race

The controversy over Bob McDonnell's 1989 graduate thesis has put the GOP candidate on the defense. But Democratic voter fatigue may keep his rival from getting ahead.

Steve Helber / AP
Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell (l.) shakes hands with Democratic opponent State Sen. Creigh Deeds, after the Virginia Bar Association debate at the Homestead in Hot Springs , Va., July 25.

Does Democrat Creigh Deeds suddenly have a shot at becoming Virginia’s next governor?

His campaign was handed a gift on Sunday when the Washington Post published the 1989 graduate thesis of Republican nominee Bob McDonnell, which is chockful of controversial statements.

Feminism and working women are “detrimental” to the traditional family, wrote Mr. McDonnell as a 34-year-old graduate student at Pat Robertson’s Regent University in Virginia Beach. Government should favor married couples over “cohabitators, homosexuals, or fornicators,” he said.

Later, as a state legislator, McDonnell pursued policies consistent with his thesis, such as opposing abortion even in cases of rape and incest and promoting “covenant marriage.”

Now, says McDonnell, most recently the state’s attorney general, many of the views expressed in that paper have changed, including those on working women. He has enlisted his female supporters to do damage control among that critical part of the electorate.

But doubts remain about whether Mr. Deeds, a state senator from rural Bath County with a southern twang, can overcome his deficit – and the historical patterns that make him the underdog.

Two polls released since “thesis-gate” exploded – PPP and Rasmussen – show McDonnell still ahead (by 7 and 9 points respectively). Since 1977, the party that wins the White House the previous fall always loses in the Virginia gubernatorial race the next year. President Obama’s struggles don’t help.

On the defense
Still, McDonnell is playing defense, a position no candidate wants to occupy. Deeds and the Democrats are running for daylight. The Democratic National Committee said Wednesday that it will kick in at least $5 million for Deeds and other Democrats in the state.

McDonnell may be fortunate that the story broke before Labor Day, when many voters are still in vacation mode. The Deeds campaign intends to raise the issue of the graduate thesis every day between now and election day.

Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, does not rule out that the “thesis effect” could still trickle down into polling.

“If you just read the comments, the following groups would be deeply offended: swing moderates, who determine elections; working women, a giant portion of the population; young people, who are completely turned off by these social views; gays and lesbians, that’s a substantial vote in Northern Virginia,” says Mr. Sabato. “You put those groups together and we’re already over 50 percent.”

Voter fatigue
The biggest challenge of all for Deeds may be Democratic voter fatigue. Party and Obama campaign organizers pulled off an unprecedented turnout operation last fall. Virginia’s turnout jumped higher than almost all other states, percentage-wise, in 2008. A year later, say Democrats, many of their voters want a break from the door-knocking.

Now it’s the out-of-power Republicans who are hungry and motivated. And key constituencies who turned out in force for Obama - minorities and suburban moderates – may be less motivated to vote for Deeds.

But women’s rights activists are still hopeful and planning strategy.

“This is an incredible opportunity to educate people and, frankly, fundraise," says Marjorie Signer, president of the Virginia chapter of the National Organization for Women. "Not only did he write about this as a mature adult in his early 30s, but he also repeatedly pursued legislation.”

On McDonnell’s point that he has changed since 1989, she says, “I don’t buy that for a moment.”


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