Candidate's radical-right thesis tests changes in Virginia

A master's thesis denouncing divorce and "fornicators" catches up with Virginia Republican

Published September 1, 2009 5:15PM (EDT)

Virginia has probably seen faster political change in the past couple of decades than any other state. Both senators from the one-time bastion of Solid South conservatism are now Democrats, along with six of its 11 representatives the House. And the Old Dominion is currently in the middle of deciding whether it will elect its third Democratic governor in a row. This must be a difficult adjustment for Republicans like gubernatorial nominee Bob McDonnell, who came up in a Virginia that was more Jerry Falwell than Mark Warner.

McDonnell, the current attorney general, has maintained an almost uninterrupted lead over Democrat Creigh Deeds for months. Chalk it up to his status as an already-elected statewide official and fatigue with Democrats in general, especially when it comes to the economy. He’s also run a smooth campaign, focusing on bread-and-butter issues and eschewing the social issue bomb-throwing of his predecessor (as both Republican gubernatorial nominee and attorney general) Jerry Kilgore.

But if McDonnell didn’t go looking for trouble, it came and found him anyway: The Washington Post unearthed the master’s thesis he wrote 20 years ago at Regent University, which was founded by Pat Robertson. As it turns out, today’s Bob McDonnell, technocrat, has done some adjusting to keep up with Virginia.

The thesis, entitled “The Republican Party's Vision for the Family: The Compelling Issue of The Decade,” focused on the relationship between Christianity and the law -- specifically, on bringing the latter more in line with the former. The argument appears to run pretty much how you’d expect: The common conception of separation and church and state is just “folklore,” divorce should be more difficult to obtain, spanking should not be considered child abuse and working women are hurting the family.

“Further expenditures would be used to subsidize a dynamic new trend of working women and feminists that is ultimately detrimental to the family by entrenching status-quo of nonparental primary nurture of children,” McDonnell wrote. He also denounced a Supreme Court decision legalizing contraception for unmarried couples, and argued for government policy to favor the lawfully-wedded over “cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators.”

McDonnell doesn’t want to be judged as a candidate based on a paper he wrote in 1989, which he calls merely “an academic exercise.” He claims his views have evolved -- much, one notes, like the state of Virginia. In a statement, he says that he is now “fully supportive of the tremendous contributions women make in the workplace. My wife and daughters work. My campaign manager in 2005 was a working mother. I appointed 5 women to my senior staff as Attorney General.” On the other hand, as the Post points out, he was elected to the state legislature soon after writing this thesis, and almost immediately began trying to put his theories into practice.

It’s hard to imagine a better blow-up for gauging just how much Virginia has changed. Deeds, the Democrat, is now trying to use this thesis to tar McDonnell as an old-school firebrand, much as current Gov. Tim Kaine did to Kilgore. Certainly, he could gain some traction that way.

But that may not be enough for Deeds to catch up. As the American Prospect’s Tim Fernholz writes, Deeds will have to show that McDonnell is still secretly a member in good standing of the Church of Robertson and Falwell, and has tried to twist public policy accordingly, and recently, as attorney general.

The best bet for doing that might be a case in which McDonnell endorsed ousting a judge from her position on unproven charges of sexual harassment by another woman, and appeared to say that homosexuality raised doubts about a person’s qualification to be a judge. A spokesman now says he was misquoted. But if McDonnell is lagging behind Virginia’s changes more than he thought, would denouncing gay-bashing in the judiciary be leaping ahead? Don’t be surprised if Deeds, preferring to go after McDonnell as an extremist without becoming a champion of gay rights himself, declines to use this particular avenue of attack.

Deeds has managed to close the gap recently, according to a survey released Tuesday by a Democratic firm, Public Policy Polling. The Democrat now trails by only seven points, 49 to 42, down from a gap of fourteen. 

But PPP completed most of the survey before the thesis story broke, and attributes the tightening to the solidification of Democrats behind Deeds. The polling to come might be the real indicator of whether the new Virginia is willing to overlook the old.

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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