Campaigns of Omission

Virginia Democrats, particularly ones in densely populated Fairfax County, had been pleased with their showings in the last few election cycles. For the first time in decades, the county had gone blue, turning out majorities for Governor Tim Kaine in 2005 and President Obama in 2008.

Last night that trend reversed course, as Republicans took not just Fairfax but the entire commonwealth, winning races for governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general by wide margins. The gubernatorial victory is particularly the apple of Pat Robertson’s eye. His vision of taking over culture and politics by building an interlocking political machine, media empire, and educational system seems to have come to fruition. Bob McDonnell, a graduate of Robertson’s Regent University, became governor of Virginia.

How did he win — with a 14 percentage point margin? By not talking about the culture war his education had molded him to fight.

Early in the evening, as election results were trickling in, Jordan Sekulow, the son of Jay Sekulow, head of the Robertson-founded American Center for Law and Justice, and himself a Regent graduate, tweeted, “A warning for liberals tonight – don’t mess with Regent Law.” McDonnell sure didn’t campaign on his Regent cred; he left that to his opponent, Creigh Deeds, who probably spent too much time pounding McDonnell’s controversial graduate thesis and not enough time laying out his own platform. By letting Deeds go into anti-Regent overdrive, McDonnell managed to focus on non-culture war issues like transportation (a thorn in the side of any Fairfax County resident) and budget issues in the cash-strapped state.

Sekulow tweeted after the results were official, “called 4 Bob McDonnell here in VA – huge victory for GOP, conservatives, and Regent alums everywhere (Regent in Gov mansion).”

McDonnell, in other words, portrayed himself as a moderate while letting his opponent fight the culture war. He wasn’t about to reprise his 2003 position that engaging in anal or oral sex might disquality someone from being a judge; his 1997 vote in the General Assembly against a bill that required insurance companies providing prescription coverage to cover contraception; his 2002 co-sponsorship of a bill that would have allowed physicians, pharmacists, and nurses to refuse to provide “any birth control pill;” or his legislative efforts to define some contraceptive methods as abortion. As a result, his retrograde record was subsumed into a moderate image. The hard right is the new normal.

In another sign the culture wars aren’t over, anti-gay activists in Maine successfully overturned a state law legalizing gay marriage. Some LGBT rights activists are angry that Obama, reprising his refusal to take a position in the Proposition 8 campaign in California last year, didn’t weigh in on Maine’s referendum, which repealed a law passed in the state legislature and signed by the governor. You can pretend the culture wars are over, and pretend that there are more moderate religious voters who are moving on to other, “broader” issues, but that doesn’t make the religious right’s money and stamina disappear. Saying nothing confers a certain power, too.

Obama did weigh in on the New Jersey governor’s race — by campaigning for the incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine, a former Goldman Sachs CEO. There, the Republican, Chris Christie, endorsed by the Family Research Council’s PAC, prevailed. Like in Virginia, culture war issues weren’t front and center. But the religious right now has an ally in yet another governor’s mansion.

There are bright spots: it looks like Washington state’s domestic partnership referendum is maintaining a narrow lead, and the Sarah Palin-endorsed Doug Hoffman lost his bid to represent New York’s 23rd Congressional District (where he doesn’t even live). But those sorts of setbacks don’t send the religious right into retreat; they only energize its sense of being on a divine mission against the secular, hedonist culture. The religious right will be on the offensive for 2010; the question is whether its opponents will match its intensity or avoid it.

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