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First Thoughts: GOP's stars of 2009 fall from grace

GOP’s stars of 2009 fall from grace… Self-inflicted -- not ideological -- problems for McDonnell and Christie… The State of the Union responder curse strikes again!!!.... Watching security for the upcoming Olympics… Today’s March for Life and the red-blue divide on abortion… Cuccinelli calls for Christie to step down as RGA chair… And Dems win key state Senate race in Virginia. 

*** GOP’s stars of 2009 fall from grace: American politics is full of stories about rising stars, possible vice-presidential candidates, and presidential contenders. But the news out Virginia yesterday is a reminder how the stories can go the other way, too. As NBC’s Pete Williams reported, former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) and his wife were charged on Tuesday with repeatedly asking for -- and getting -- illegal gifts from a businessman eager for the state to promote his products. McDonnell has admitted taking the gifts, but he said he repaid them (with interest) and broke no law. Nevertheless, this is a jarring fall-from-grace story for a politician once considered a potential running mate to Mitt Romney in 2012 and even a presidential candidate in 2016. And when you combine it with the news coming out of New Jersey, with the bridge scandal and other allegations hitting Gov. Chris Christie (R), it’s been an awful last two weeks for the GOP’s stars from the Class of 2009. 

Joshua Roberts / REUTERS

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) during their annual meeting in Washington, in this February 19, 2010, file photo.

*** Self-inflicted -- not ideological -- problems for McDonnell, Christie: Of course, we’re still waiting to see how the Christie story ultimately unfolds, but the problems that both he and McDonnell are currently facing have little to nothing to do with ideology. Both men governed from the relative middle in their respective states, and that explains their strong approval ratings. (Even after the McDonnell story exploded, the former Virginia governor’s numbers remained in the 50s.) Instead, their problems appear to be self-inflicted. For Christie, the allegations are that 1) his administration caused a traffic jam to apparently punish a Democratic mayor who didn’t endorse him, and 2) that his lieutenant governor told a mayor that hurricane relief money would be linked to approval of a private commercial project. For McDonnell, the charges involve receiving gifts -- and returning favors for them. 

*** McDonnell’s politically done, but could he avoid serving time? All that said, the feds might have a tough case to prove when it comes to McDonnell. It’s all clearly unethical, but being unethical is not a crime -- it’s proving the quid pro quo. And McDonnell’s statement yesterday gives a hint as to his defense that he never thought he was doing anything in return for the gifts. Jonnie Williams has immunity, which is why there are SO MANY details in this indictment. But judging by what McDonnell’s lawyers are saying off camera, don’t expect some plea deal right away. This could very well end up in court. By the way, this McDonnell fall from grace is actually a very familiar scandal, unfortunately. It’s amazing how many politicians allow themselves to make these mistakes in the name of vanity. In this case, this appears to be a couple that just couldn’t accept the fact they couldn’t keep up with the Joneses. They were trying to live a lifestyle they couldn’t afford, and in order to do it, they cut corners. And while for months, McDonnell defenders hinted that this was mainly driven by Maureen McDonnell, what this indictment indicates is that the governor was just as “in” on the game as she was. 

*** The State of the Union responder curse strikes again! By the way, with the McDonnell news and with next week’s State of the Union approaching, here’s a (dubious) list of all the State of the Union responders going back to 2007. The GOP has yet to announce who’s giving its response to President Obama, but will anyone want the job after looking at this list? The only one here who -- right now -- appears to still have some political juice left is House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan. 

2007: Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) – OUT OF POLITICS
2008: Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D-KS) – BOTCHED OBAMACARE ROLLOUT
2010: Gov. Bob McDonnell (R-VA) – INDICTED
2011: Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) – LOSING VP CANDIDATE IN 2012
2012: Gov. Mitch Daniels (R-IN) – OUT OF POLITICS

*** Watching security for the upcoming Olympics: Outside the McDonnell and Christie news, maybe the most important political -- and geopolitical -- story is the one coming out of Sochi, Russia concerning the security at the upcoming Olympic Games. Yesterday, the White House announced that President Obama and Russian President Putin spoke by phone on a range of issues, including security at the Olympics. “The two presidents also discussed how best to advance shared U.S.-Russian interests, including a safe and secure Sochi Olympics, for which the United States has offered its full assistance,” per the White House’s readout of the call. Interestingly, the White House has refused to say who called whom. Inquiring minds want to know. Obviously, given what’s going on with Syria and Iran, it seems logical the two would be scheduling a check-in call about now. But was this call about Putin looking for more help with security? Is that how we’re supposed to read “full assistance” in that phrase? Or is this about the White House nervous about whether Putin has these games secure?

*** The March for Life and the red-blue divide on abortion: Today is the annual anti-abortion March for Life in Washington, DC. USA Today: “Snow, ice and below-freezing weather won't stop thousands of people from across the country taking to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to protest abortion in the annual March for Life on Wednesday.” The march comes one day after a report that this week’s Republican National Committee meeting will vote on a resolution “urging GOP candidates to speak up about abortion and respond forcefully against Democratic efforts to paint them as anti-woman extremists.” The RNC also is freeing up time to allow its members to participate in the march. Politically, no issue better underscores today’s partisan atmosphere more than abortion. With few exceptions, Democrats are ardent supporters of abortion rights. And with few exceptions, Republicans are ardent opponents. And as a result, it’s hard to believe that the issue will go away anytime soon. It wasn’t that long ago when both parties tolerated -- and even recruited -- pro-life Democrats and pro-choice Republicans. Now it seems as if it would be impossible for a pro-life Democrat to win a competitive primary or a pro-choice Republican to do the same. The unintended consequence is that abortion law will continue to change depending on the party in charge. If the issue isn’t settled politically, it’ll never fully feel settled legally. 

*** Cuccinelli calls for Christie to step down as RGA chair: On CNN last night, former Virginia Republican gubernatorial nominee Ken Cucinnelli became the first high-profile GOPer to recommend that Chris Christie step down as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. "I think just from the perspective of setting aside this as an issue in other races, it makes sense for him to step aside in that role. He does not serve the goals of that organization by staying as chairman," Cuccinelli said, per NBC’s Andrew Rafferty. "That doesn't mean any of the charges, political or otherwise, are substantive or not. It doesn't matter, perception is reality," he added. Don’t forget that Cuccinelli has a possible axe to grind here – given that the popular Christie didn’t campaign for him in 2013. Still, this is part of Christie’s problem right now: A lot of folks, including Republicans, have axes to grind.  

*** Dems continue to flex their muscles in Virginia: Democrats last night won a state Senate special election in Virginia, which puts them in the driver’s seat of controlling that chamber. The Washington Post: “In the race to fill the seat vacated by Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D), Democrat Jennifer Wexton prevailed over Republican John Whitbeck and independent Joe T. May, a former Republican delegate running as an independent, according to unofficial election results. The district encompasses a slice of Fairfax County and a hefty portion of eastern Loudoun County.” To gain control of the state Senate -- with Dem Lt. Go. Ralph Northam casting the tie vote -- Democrats must also hold on to a race where their candidate was the certified winner by just nine votes. Yet more than anything else, last night’s race is a reminder of just how much ground the Republican Party needs to make up in the state, especially in the vital Northern Virginia suburbs and exurbs. Outside of Bob McDonnell’s 2009 gubernatorial victory, Democrats have won most of the major contests in the state -- Obama in ’08 and ’12, Tim Kaine in ’12, Terry McAuliffe in ’13.  

*** Does that help Gillespie? Indeed, Roll Call writes that the GOP’s losses in Virginia could actually help establishment Senate candidate Ed Gillespie in a nominating convention usually dominated by conservatives. “Gillespie ‘does have to take [the convention] seriously, but I think people want to win a statewide race in Virginia,’ Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., said. ‘Having lost three races last fall [governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general], I think they recognize we need a candidate who is in the hunt when it comes to the last part of the race … and that means somebody who is capable of raising the money.’”  

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