It was interesting to see Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell announce the formation of a Virginians For McDonnell group yesterday (see Richmond Times-Dispatch). In the old days, candidates from each party, especially the Republicans, used such umbrella groups as organs to attract, gain donations from, and put to grassroots work conservative Democrats who were dissatisfied with their liberal Dem brothers, and independents who had left the party but couldn't quite call themselves Republicans. The Byrd organization comes to mind. Now, these groups are intended to burnish one's "moderate" image and curry favor with certain power circles. This group's coming out party didn't disappoint and featured numerous former liberal Republicans who have either bolted the party or made high-profile endorsements of Democrats in recent elections, as well as some independents, a former Mark Warner cabinet member and a former Democrat delegate. (Read the well-regarded Dr. Bob Hollsworth's take at his blog, Virginia Tomorrow.)
While reaching out to the center by advocating the superiority of conservative principles — limited government, low taxation, free-market capitalism, defense of life and the unborn, traditional marriage, parental rights, rule of law, education choice and reform, and the like — is exactly what candidates should do, conservative activists get nervous when conservative candidates are seen pandering to "moderates" and thus water down the message and alienate those who should be their biggest supporters. Ask President McCain how well that strategy works.
But what caught my attention was this McDonnell remark:
"To me, it is a recognition that we need to rebuild the Reagan coalition," he said. "Ronald Reagan was able to get social and economic conservatives to support him, and he was able to reach out to so-called 'Reagan Democrats' and bring them on board around a good, solid fiscal conservative message."
Actually, Ronald Reagan's social conservatism is what rung true to many ethnic, Catholic, blue-collar and even Southern born-again Christian Democrats. Their upbringing and faith told them voting reflexively for liberals, because they were raised in Democrat households, was counter intuitive given the embrace of moral relativism by the liberal movement and the cultural decay that ideology presided over — and that it no longer was acceptable.
All of this, coincidentally, comes on the heals of another Gallup Poll that shows conservatism gaining. Last month, it was that a majority of Americans consider themselves pro-life. Now, Gallup shows that Americans, by almost double, consider themselves conservative rather than liberal (40 percent to 21 percent, while 35 percent say they are in the middle). Although it's always dangerous to assume, one would think in Virginia, the percentage of conservatives is higher, liberals less. Not coincidental, is the fact that the culture and values are under the largest assault in decades (same-sex marriage, for example).
So, if by "reaching out" McDonnell has no problem blurring lines on key issues, he, like McCain, will be on the receiving end of a mighty blowback of voters desperate for someone to reflect their values. Just yesterday, the Washington Times took McDonnell to task for lacking a major tax cut proposal, as have some conservative bloggers already for a lack of big idea (see Tertium Quids and another Dr. Hollsworth piece here). But, if he's bold, as was Ronald Reagan, and unapologetically campaigns on the tried and true principles that most voters instinctively gravitate to, he will find them enthusiastically receptive to his message.