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FiveThirtyEight

Politics

Q: What happens when you’re a major party nominee for governor and your graduate thesis from 20 years ago is uncovered, revealing some rather impolitic views about the role of women in the workplace society? A: The other party, which happens to be led by the current governor of the state where you’re running, announces it will dump a huge sum of money into the contest to defeat you.

That’s the news late today from Democratic National Committee spokesman Brad Woodhouse: The DNC is going to gamble $5 million on the Creigh Deeds campaign against Bob McDonnell, who has been scrambling all week to explain and defend a master’s thesis he wrote 20 years ago as a 34-year-old graduate student at Regent University. The DNC is trying to capitalize on the thesis controversy, as Woodhouse’s statements make all too clear. “Governor [Tim] Kaine is very, very enthusiastic about this race,” Woodhouse said. “He obviously knows Bob McDonnell and Creigh Deeds. He has a good sense that Creigh Deeds is who you see, and Bob McDonnell is who we learned about through his thesis.”

DNC investments aside, how damaging are the revelations related to the thesis–which can be read in full here–to McDonnell’s candidacy? Put another way, is this his “macaca” moment?

My initial reflex is that this story is very damaging. The Washington Post is giving the story significant coverage, leading its Metro section with a page B1 story today about the McDonnell campaign’s damage control efforts:

McDonnell has now turned to his prominent female backers to help rebuild his relationship with the key voting bloc, damaged in recent days by the publication of his 1989 master’s thesis. He wrote in the thesis that working women and feminists had been “detrimental” to the traditional family and criticized federal tax credits for child care because they made it easier for women to be employed outside the home.

His efforts came as leaders of national organizations focused on the Virginia race, convinced that McDonnell’s thesis shows that his election would erase gains for women.

The Post also pubbed a page B2 companion story today reporting that four of McDonnell’s former Republican colleagues in the state legislature–all Deeds supporters, and brought forward by the Deeds campaign–confirm that McDonnell’s political views as a state legislator were consistent with views he published in that thesis.

The McDonnell thesis scandal unfolding in Virginia already bears a certain resemblance to the state’s other recent election-year controversy–George Allen’s “macaca” episode. Both involve the backfire resulting caused by the wide circulation of embarrassing words attributed to a Republican statewide candidate and, because they were either videotaped or set down in print, are impossible to retract.

I do not, however, think the damage McDonnell will suffer is as great as that suffered by Allen. Though Allen was an incumbent, with all those advantages, his comments were offensive in a general way, whereas some people, sadly, may be completely untroubled by the notion that women ought to take a subservient role in the family or American society. Allen’s remarks were also videotaped–thus heightening their viral impact because television could run video and audio almost ceaselessly–whereas McDonnell’s are “merely” in print. Finally, Allen’s nasty remark was wholly unrelated to the topic or goal of his picnic speech that day, and thus came across as not only racist but the byproduct of a mean, intemperate person, whereas McDonnell’s can at least attempt (however successfully) to explain his comments as one part of a larger policy argument or inquiry.

As the Pollster composite poll figure above shows, McDonnell enters September with a 10-point lead. We’ll see how his numbers respond as this story develops and that $5 million takes effect.

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