Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell is exactly the sort of candidate -- an appealing, conservative pragmatist who knows how to govern -- that the Republican Party needs if it wants to win elections. He is ideal, in large part, not because of his heterodoxies but because he appeals to the educated voters that ought to make up the Republican base. And that's why some conservative activists' efforts to turn their backs on him and write him out the conservative movement seem awfully short-sighted.
Let's start with the facts about McDonnell. He is, down the line, a solid conservative. He's pro-life and pro-gun. (I'm with him all the way.) He opposes marriage equality. (I think he's wrong.) He has generally kept spending under control and avoided broad-based tax increases. His heterodoxies are few in number. He was considered "shaky" on gun issues early in his career (the NRA actually endorsed Democrat Creigh Deeds in the nail-biting 2005 election for Virginia Attorney General.) More recently, he convinced the legislature to pass a transportation plan that involved some modest tax increases to pay for infrastructure improvements that, in themselves, almost nobody publicly opposes. Insofar governors of both parties have tried, and failed, to pass major transportation bills for just about two decades, there clearly was some demand for what McDonnell did. Since, by some measures, Northern Virginia's traffic is the worst in the nation, something needed to be done. It takes a very extreme libertarian to contend that the government shouldn't have a role in building transportation infrastructure. Whether or not McDonnell's plan to do this was a particularly good one is another story altogether; it's hard to tell and things probably won't be clear for another decade or so.
But the mere fact that the deal included some tax increases was enough to earn McDonnell a cold shoulder from the Conservative Political Action Conference and attacks from Grover Norquist.
And this is a problem. McDonnell, as a recent Quinnipiac poll shows, has remained quite popular in Virginia in the wake of the tax increases: He has high approval ratings from almost every group and has rarely had less than 50 percent approval since he took office. Most importantly for the Republican Party's future, he polls strongly amongst people who have a college degree or more -- a group that Barack Obama won a majority of both times -- something no Democratic candidate (even victorious ones) since the 1960s had done. In fact, McDonnell's margin of approval amongst people with college education or more is greater than his margin amongst the population as a whole.
A Republican party that can't capture the educated simply won't have much to run on. While plenty of very bright and able people don't attend college or drop out, successful people, as a group, will always have more college degrees than the unsuccessful. The GOP is dead in the water if it can't attract college grads (the single largest demographic group by education), it can't call for cut-backs in the entitlement state (since so many of its voters will depend on such entitlements); and can't promote enterprise and entrepreneurship convincingly (since the people most able and successful in business won't actually support its platform). Instead, it will have to rely on social issues and incoherent promises to "keep the government out of Medicare."
A Republican who could take a majority of college educated people would almost certainly win a general election unless a Democratic nominee somehow figured out how to siphon off core Republican voters. McDonnell's transportation plan may well be bad. He may deserve criticism for supporting some modest tax increases. But it's silly to say that he's not a conservative; and even sillier to contend that he doesn't have a future in the GOP.