The late-night hotel desk clerk in Salem, Va., -- after my long drive from Washington down the Shenandoah Valley -- wanted to talk political philosophy. He intended to support Republican Bob McDonnell for governor in November on Madisonian grounds. "I vote both parties, but I don't want anyone having all the control." Obama, in his view, needed to be checked and balanced.
This is the durable tendency of Virginia politics. Since 1977, the political party that has won the presidency has, in every case, lost the Virginia governorship in the next election. This pattern of cussedness is holding, at least for the moment. McDonnell, Virginia's former attorney general, is currently well ahead of his Democratic opponent, Creigh Deeds -- in one poll leading by 15 percent among likely voters.
McDonnell, riding in a well-worn, 30-foot blue RV from dairy farm to winery to college campus, recounts to me how the political environment has changed from a year ago. "The business community," he says, "was the first to recoil" from policies such as card check and cap-and-trade. "But health care now dwarfs previous concerns -- handing over the best medical system in the world to the federal government. It affects everyone." Conservatives, he contends, are more activated than at any time since 1993. A young McDonnell campaign worker told me: "We have the enthusiasm Obama's people had last time."
Well, not quite. About 50 students greeted McDonnell when he arrived at the James Madison University dining hall. A year ago, some James Madison students waited in line more than four hours to get a glimpse of candidate Obama. But in the low turnout of a nonpresidential election year, any momentum gets magnified, and McDonnell seems to have the intensity advantage.
So how do Republicans find success in the first election of a growing Obama backlash? Not by bashing Obama himself -- something McDonnell is careful to avoid. In the day of campaigning I witnessed, McDonnell mentioned Obama by name only twice: once to praise his views on charter schools, the other to note that, "We use the same company that did Obama's text messaging." Obama turned out hundreds of thousands of new Virginia voters last November, concentrated among minorities and in suburban areas. McDonnell wants to appeal to these voters, not alienate them with direct attacks on the president. "This is about policy," he says, "not personal. If the president is right, I'm willing to work with him."