Sabato's Crystal Ball

Virginia Gubernatorial Rematch

Will 2009 reflect past trends or overturn them?

Dale Eisman, Guest Columnist June 25th, 2009

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Barack Obama owes his presidency in part to his campaign’s mastery of the internet. A corps of online Obama enthusiasts helped him identify and mobilize previously-hidden groups of voters–particularly those under 30–and build an historic fundraising apparatus. In much of the country, Republicans were left with a clear majority only among older and rural voters, those least likely to have broadband service.

The Obama apparatus worked to near perfection in Virginia, where the tech boom of the 1990s brought thousands of new, internet-savvy voters to the suburbs south and west of Washington and helped complete a shift of the state’s political center of gravity to that region from Richmond.

Many of the newcomers work for the federal government or for private employers who do business with it; they tend to be more politically engaged and more inclined than voters downstate to view government at all levels as a force–at least potentially–for good.

Democratic bloggers from the region were influential in Gov. Tim Kaine’s 2005 election and Jim Webb’s 2006 Senate victory. Their work last year for Obama helped him become the first Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 to secure Virginia’s electoral votes.

Along with Obama, Virginians chose a Democrat (former Gov. Mark Warner) to fill a Senate seat held for three decades by the GOP, and gave the party as 6-5 majority of the state’s seats in the House of Representatives.

Whether Democrats can sustain or Republicans reverse the Old Dominion’s red-to-blue shift in this year’s gubernatorial election figures to be one of the main story lines in national politics during 2009. Only Virginia and New Jersey hold statewide contests this year, and national pundits already are casting the Virginia race as a referendum on the Obama administration.

So it was eye-opening, to put it mildly, earlier this month when state Democrats passed over a pair of gubernatorial candidates from their new stronghold in Northern Virginia in favor of a soft-spoken, country lawyer.

R. Creigh Deeds, 51, lives near the West Virginia line in Bath County, a place so remote it has only one stoplight. He has a relaxed, easy-to-like persona but is far less polished than either of his primary rivals, former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe of McLean and former state Del. Brian Moran of Alexandria.

Deeds raised only about half as much money as McAuliffe and substantially less than Moran as well. Though he has a solid legislative record and experience as a statewide candidate, he also carried political baggage–for a Democratic primary anyway–in the form of his past support from the gun lobby. The NRA is a potent interest group in rural Virginia but its support generally is considered a liability in the cities and suburbs.

He won anyway, easily carrying every part of the state. And the critical factor was old media–a Washington Post endorsement that energized his supporters and triggered a wave of contributions. His campaign invested in TV ads built touting the endorsement, leading to more donations that bought more ads. The internet and its social/political networks were not major players.

Deeds is the first Virginia Democrat since Gerald Baliles in 1985 to run for governor from a rural base. Mary Sue Terry, the party’s failed 1993 candidate, had represented a rural district in the legislature, but by the time she ran for governor her political organization was centered in Richmond.

Deeds, by contrast, has maintained his rural roots, even moving his campaign headquarters to Charlottesville–hours away from the population centers in the DC suburbs, Hampton Roads and Richmond.

“It was a brilliantly run campaign,” said Curry Roberts, who as a young aide to Baliles helped execute his rural strategy in ’85. “Creigh is the first guy in a long time to take a rural base and say ‘I’m going to make something of it,'” Roberts observed.

Baliles, a native of Patrick County in the state’s southwestern mountains, won his nomination by securing a majority of convention delegates chosen in mass meetings in every locality. He largely ceded urban centers to then-Lt. Gov. Dick Davis, a former mayor of Portsmouth, but targeted a few suburbs and combined them with his rural support to fashion a narrow majority.

The primary format gave Deeds a larger challenge, Roberts suggested, but the basic strategy was the same. Deeds counted on dominating the countryside, looked to pick up help in some Hampton Roads suburbs, and hoped that McAuliffe and Moran would divide the vote in their Northern Virginia base.

The Post endorsement then provided an unexpected boost, allowing Deeds to emerge as the most viable alternative to McAuliffe, a newcomer to Virginia politics whose $5 million in out-of-state donations made him seem an interloper.

After the voting, Post columnist Chris Cillizza tellingly observed that McAuliffe’s northeastern accent and rhetorical style gave the impression that he was “running for mayor of Syracuse… rather than governor of Virginia.” McAuliffe’s reputation as a fast-talking dealmaker and his ties to former President Bill Clinton, never a particularly popular figure in Virginia, also may have worked in Deeds’ favor.

Moran, the early frontrunner, was more comfortable than McAuliffe with state issues and carried a rolodex bursting with the names of local officeholders and party functionaries whom he had quietly courted for years. But he also sounded like a New Englander and his outspoken liberalism (by Virginia standards) would have been a break with the Warner-Kaine formula for Democratic success.

Deeds’ gentle drawl and centrist record seem a better, or at least a more traditional fit. His primary triumph sets up a fall rematch with Republican Bob McDonnell, a former state attorney general who edged him by 360 votes (out of nearly 2 million) to win that job in 2005.

The outline of their contest already seems clear. McDonnell, 55, will focus on reviving the flagging Republican brand in the critical suburbs. Deeds will try to build on Obama’s success, as well as that of Kaine and Warner, in the same areas, while working his rural base, a segment of the electorate that Republicans have come to regard as their own in statewide races.

Both men are personable former state legislators who have cast themselves as moderates; each will have to fight to hold the label.

Democrats already are going after McDonnell as a too-conservative disciple of George W. Bush and Virginia Beach evangelist and broadcaster Pat Robertson. The Republican is a graduate of the Robertson-founded Regent University law school and an unabashed opponent of abortion rights.

Even before the primary, the Democratic Governor’s Association financed a round of TV ads blasting McDonnell for encouraging GOP legislators to turn down federal aid extending Virginians’ unemployment benefits.

Republicans meanwhile, will cast Deeds as a freespending liberal in moderate clothing, willing to raise taxes even as the economy founders and unemployment rolls grow. They take comfort in the knowledge that McDonnell has beaten Deeds before, much as Democrat Baliles had beaten his 1985 GOP opponent, Wyatt Durrette, in a race for attorney general four years earlier.

McDonnell also holds rhetorical and geographic advantages. He was smoother on TV and better on the stump than Deeds when they ran in 2005, and he has personal roots in both Northern Virginia–he grew up there–and Hampton Roads, since he now calls Virginia Beach home.

One critical issue is likely to be transportation. Deeds has supported fuel tax increases for highway construction–blocked in the legislature by Republicans–and is promising to focus on highway upgrades if he’s elected governor. McDonnell, a foe of highway tax hikes, says new road money should come from Virginia’s share in the proceedsof offshore oil and natural gas leases.

The lease revenues are years, even decades away however–assuming a Democratic Congress and Obama decide to permit offshore energy development–so the election could turn on whether voters who fight gridlock daily in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads would rather endure the traffic or pay higher taxes to ease it.

Obama and his management of the economy also figure to be issues. Virginians are notoriously wary of budget deficits, so Republicans will surely look to exploit Obama’s willingness to finance everything from health care reform to auto industry bailouts with borrowed money.

Underscoring the stakes, the president has installed Gov. Kaine as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, where he serves as one of the administration’s most vocal cheerleaders. State law bars Kaine from seeking a second term.

Virginians have a long history of bucking such presidential attempts to influence their choices for the state’s highest office (see chart). Most recently, George W. Bush installed then-Gov. Jim Gilmore as GOP national chair early in 2001 only to see the party lose the governorship that fall to Mark Warner.

No doubt, Obama and Kaine are convinced they can do better than Bush and Gilmore. We shall see.

Virginia’s gubernatorial race: A trap for Obama?

Barack Obama is the first Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson to carry Virginia and he clearly wants to push the Old Dominion further into the Democratic column through this year’s contest for governor. Obama has installed departing and term-limited Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine as Democratic national chairman and is promising to campaign for party nominee Creigh Deeds.

But the president and Deeds are running against history, along with GOP nominee Bob McDonnell. Not since Republican Mills Godwin’s election in 1973 have Virginians chosen a governor from the incumbent president’s party.



Dale Eisman, a freelance journalist and former Washington correspondent for The Virginian-Pilot, has covered Virginia politics for over three decades. He can be contacted via email at icemandc@msn.com.