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How to Expand the Base

Bob McDonnell, according to the latest batch of polls, is heading for a runaway win tomorrow. One point of interest will be whether McDonnell was able to recapture nonwhite voters who fled the GOP in 2008. After the 2008 election, the pundits said that demographics were killing the GOP. Everyone had a radical idea to change the party or the message.

But after that election, McDonnell had the luxury of some time to address that issue and show that he wanted to reach out beyond white, male social conservatives. So he spoke to business leaders and local Republicans in many ethnic communities, often in small gatherings. (I saw some of these, which late in 2008 had only a dozen or so attendees.) The message was the same: conservative economic ideas work, and the party erred in alienating minority voters (by appearing anti-immigrant instead of anti–illegal immigration).

The McDonnell campaign understood the problem of a shrinking base in an increasingly diverse state. As one Virginia Republican confided to me recently, “Republicans tried running against Hispanics. It doesn’t work.” Sergio Rodriguera Jr., a young party activist and veteran of the 2004 and 2008 presidential campaigns, had urged McDonnell back in December to reach out to minorities. He told me last week that he is pleased with McDonnell’s efforts, citing charter schools as a significant draw for minorities: “McDonnell has been a good listener, and his Hispanic-outreach events have not been token events with chips and salsa. He understands that Hispanics, like other minorities, want to live the American dream of building a small business and owning their own home.”

Over the weekend, I spoke to a northern Virginia McDonnell adviser who reeled off the Asian-American groups that McDonnell spent time cultivating. His message was not different, but it was pointed: low taxes, low regulation, and good education were key for entrepreneurs in the minority community. Creigh Deeds, on the other hand, never made the sale. McDonnell’s adviser recalls going to the Eden Center, a huge Vietnamese-American merchant center in northern Virginia, the day after Deeds had been there. “Not a single Deeds sign was up,” she said.

Among the lessons Republicans will try to extract from McDonnell’s race will be how he succeeded, if his numbers hold, with nonwhite voters. It’s really not brain surgery: show up and explain why the conservative platform works for them. Whether they follow that message and execute it remains to be seen.