WaPo Chronicles How McDonnell Survived Its Smear Campaign

Today's Metro section front-pager by Washington Post's Amy Gardner -- "McDonnell team rose to challenge in darkest hour" -- reminded me of a line from "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy"

"From deep down in my stomach, with every inch of me, I pure, straight hate you. But g*d***it, do I respect you!" seethes rival TV station anchor Wes Mantooth (Vince Vaughn) to Burgundy (Will Ferrell).

The Washington Post hatefully threw all it had at making the "thesis issue" a career killer for McDonnell, who went on to win 54 percent of the women's vote in Tuesday election. But looking back, Post staffer Amy Gardner gave readers a look into how the McDonnell campaign hunkered down, stuck with a disciplined message, and thwarted the paper's scheme to "macaca" McDonnell:

The Washington Post learned of the thesis in a mid-August interview with McDonnell and obtained a copy from Regent's library, where it is publicly available. The Post planned to publish a story on the thesis Sunday, Aug. 30. On Thursday, Aug. 27, the paper provided a copy of the thesis to the McDonnell campaign and asked for comment. 


McDonnell decided to disavow anything that suggested opposition to women entering the workplace. He emphasized a pledge to hire and fire only on the basis of merit and not gender or sexual orientation. And he planned to make clear that he still believed many of the ideas in the thesis, notably that family is the "bedrock" of society and that government cannot step in and do what is rightfully the role of families.

Via cellphone to his advisers, McDonnell made those decisions that Saturday, Aug. 29, while making his way through Northern Virginia. He also decided to limit his response to a written statement and to avoid a potential stumble over detailed passages. And he proceeded to his final campaign stop in Woodbridge, where he delivered his message of job creation and problem-solving to a crowd of hundreds. He showed up at Gar-Field High School 90 minutes late and visibly weary.

After The Post story was published, the Deeds campaign seized on it. State and national media began writing about it. Even Republicans, including Gillespie, were reporting privately to the campaign that their wives were appalled by the document. But the McDonnell team had formulated a longer-term strategy. 

First, McDonnell would hold a telephone conference call with the media that didn't end until there were no more questions to ask. It was a grueling, sometimes combative exchange with reporters, but his advisers said it showed McDonnell at his best, patiently answering questions and turning the discussion back to his own themes as often as he could.

"It took the entire print press corps, the newspapers in the rest of the state, outside of The Washington Post, and made it about a two- to three-day story with them," Cox said. "We understood that it would be part of every story. But it becomes a process sentence, as in, 'The thesis rocked the race, and the McDonnell campaign regained their footing.' "

A second part of the strategy was to make television ads to control any damage the thesis would do with voters.

Where discipline became key was as the crisis dragged on. More than a week after it started, questions about the thesis so dominated an appearance with Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) that the candidate's handlers abruptly called a halt to the event.

"Is this what it's going to be like for the rest of the campaign?" Cox recalled the candidate asking him that day. Cox's response: "If we stay on message and retain our message discipline, this, too, will pass."

Perhaps the lowest point came later in September, when public polls showed McDonnell's lead narrowing to the mid-single digits. What the polls didn't yet measure was that Deeds would focus on the thesis to the exclusion of telling voters about himself and that they would become turned off by the negativity.

And what the polls began showing soon thereafter was that the strategy devised via cellphone in the cramped rear bedroom of the RV had worked.

Of course, neither Gardner nor the paper's editorial staff will admit the paper was all but wearing Creigh Deeds campaign pins on their lapels, but Gardner does a service for future conservative candidates by chronicling how the McDonnell campaign refused to be taken down by a liberal Democrat tag-teaming with the liberal media.

Campaign Watch Campaigns & Elections Washington Post Government & Press Bob McDonnell Amy Gardner Creigh Deeds