- - Friday, April 11, 2014

In his campaign for governor last fall, Terry McAuliffe adopted the straightforward slogan “Putting Jobs First” to convey to Virginia voters that, if elected, he would make the commonwealth’s economy his first priority.

Mr. McAuliffe’s surrogates similarly touted the former Democratic moneyman’s fiscal focus. Former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine endorsed Mr. McAuliffe because, he said, “We want somebody who wakes up thinking about jobs, thinking about the economy, thinking about finding a great deal, thinking about training the workforce.”

“I know what Terry’s priority is,” Mr. Kaine continued. “It’s economic opportunity for Virginia.”

That message helped Mr. McAuliffe prevail in a close election. In his first few weeks in office, though, Mr. McAuliffe seems to have changed his priorities. In fact, he has morphed into something of a culture warrior.

On April 4, Mr. McAuliffe vetoed legislation designed to protect the religious freedom of children in public schools. The bill would have affirmed students’ right to organize religious clubs, wear religious clothing and express religious speech at school events to the same extent that students also may engage in nonreligious expression or activities.

Mr. McAuliffe said the bill was unconstitutional and that it “would likely subject school divisions to extensive and costly litigation.” However, it seems more likely that Mr. McAuliffe feared the Roy Costner scenario — named after the South Carolina valedictorian who led students in the Lord’s Prayer after tearing up his school-approved graduation speech.

Mr. McAuliffe’s veto followed a veto of another prayer bill, which would have prohibited government censorship of the religious content of sermons made by chaplains of the Virginia National Guard (as long as the sermons did not encourage disobedience of lawful orders).

Among Mr. McAuliffe’s first three vetoes as governor, two have negated attempts to protect the religious free-speech rights of Virginians. His other veto thwarted an attempt to allow Virginia gun owners to keep legal firearms in secured and closed — but not necessarily locked — locations in their cars.

After campaigning as the jobs-first candidate, Mr. McAuliffe signaled literally on Day One of his term that cultural issues would be a priority in his administration. On Inauguration Day, the governor signed an executive order extending state government nondiscrimination policies to cover sexual orientation and gender identity.

With Mr. McAuliffe at the helm, Democrats in the Virginia General Assembly have been emboldened to take action on cultural issues.

In January, Democratic Attorney General Mark R. Herring announced that he will not defend Virginia’s popularly enacted ban on same-sex marriage. The announcement prompted Republican Delegate C. Todd Gilbert to say, “Our attorney just quit on us.” Mr. Gilbert was one of 32 delegates to sign a letter calling on the governor to provide legal counsel.

Then, when a federal district court struck down Virginia’s marriage amendment, Mr. McAuliffe applauded the ruling, stating, “This decision is a significant step forward in achieving greater equality for all of our citizens.”

The marriage amendment passed just eight years ago with 57 percent support from Old Dominion voters. That’s nine percentage points more than Mr. McAuliffe received in his nail-biter of an election last November.

No culture war would be complete with a skirmish about abortion. In February, Democrats in the state Senate voted to repeal a law to mandate ultrasounds before abortions in the state. The bill died in the House of Delegates, but it demonstrated that Democrats are newly energized with a governor who promised to be a “brick wall” against new limits on the procedure.

Republicans may have only themselves to blame for Mr. McAuliffe’s activism. During the campaign for governor, his opponent, Ken Cuccinelli, only reluctantly and belatedly raised the Democrat’s out-of-the-mainstream positions on social issues. That’s because Mr. Cuccinelli was repeatedly told by deep-pocketed donors in the GOP establishment to stay away from those issues.

Mr. McAuliffe got a free pass on his extreme social-policy prescriptions, so it is not really surprising that he is putting those prescriptions into effect.

Mr. Cuccinelli’s flawed strategy was the same one followed in recent years by numerous other Republican candidates, including Mitt Romney in 2012. Squaring off against the most socially liberal president in American history, Mr. Romney barely mentioned abortion, homosexual marriage or religious liberty.

There’s a lesson in this for Republicans going forward. To paraphrase a famous saying, you may not be interested in the culture war, but the culture war is very interested in you. Democrats are going to continue to fight for their extreme social agenda. It’s up to Republicans to fight back.

Gary Bauer, a former presidential candidate and domestic policy adviser to President Reagan, is president of American Values and chairman of the Campaign for Working Families.