Monday, June 15, 2009

Virginia Governor: Democrats Play It Smart by Nominating Deeds

By Stuart Rothenberg

The Virginia gubernatorial race just got a whole lot tougher for Republican nominee Bob McDonnell.

Instead of nominating a liberal from Northern Virginia (former state Del. Brian Moran) or an upstate New Yorker normally identified with the national Democratic Party (Terry McAuliffe), Old Dominion Democrats opted for a rural state Senator, Creigh Deeds, thereby giving the party a standard-bearer in the fall who can run as heir to the Mark Warner-Tim Kaine legacy of pragmatism.

One national Republican strategist has a simple formula in explaining recent Virginia elections, and it doesn’t seem far off the mark: The guy who looks extreme or stupid and is the focal point of the race loses.

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Mary Sue Terry lost the 1993 election to Republican George Allen because he defined her as too liberal. The same thing happened four years later, in 1997, when Jim Gilmore (R) defeated Northern Virginia car dealer Don Beyer (D).

On the other hand, now-Sen. Jim Webb (D) narrowly defeated Allen in the 2006 Senate race because Allen’s “macaca” remark (and his subsequent explanation of it) made him look intolerant and inept. Democrats used 2005 GOP gubernatorial nominee Jerry Kilgore’s accent to paint him as a none-too-bright hick. And Republican Bill Bolling won the state’s No. 2 office in 2005 by painting his Democratic opponent, former Rep. Leslie Byrne from Northern Virginia, as a kooky liberal.

Deeds’ rural roots and momentum make him a tough adversary for Republicans. He won’t be as easily defined (or demonized) as a liberal as Moran or McAuliffe would have been.

But McDonnell’s early campaign suggests that he too understands where the state is and how he needs to appeal to voters. He isn’t going to allow himself to be branded as an intolerant, ignorant redneck who is still fighting the Civil War. It will be up to Deeds and Virginia Democrats to brand the Republican as “too extreme” for Virginians. (Common Sense Virginia, a group funded by the Democratic Governors Association, has been hammering the Republican in TV spots for weeks.)

Deeds’ statewide strength on Tuesday is worth emphasizing. In winning 10 of the state’s 11 Congressional districts, he demonstrated broad personal and political appeal, at least among Democrats.

By all accounts, the Deeds-McDonnell race looks like a very competitive one, with campaign decisions, candidate performance and news developments deciding the winner.

Recent election results show how competitive the Old Dominion has become. Webb won his Senate seat by winning 49.6 percent of the total vote in 2006, while Mark Warner won the governorship in 2001 with 52.2 percent and Kaine won the state’s top office in 2005 with 51.7 percent. George W. Bush carried the state in 2004 with 53.7 percent, while President Barack Obama won with 52.6 percent.

Of course, McDonnell beat Deeds in the state attorney general’s race four years ago by just 323 votes, and Bolling beat Byrne to become lieutenant governor by drawing only 50.5 percent of the vote. (Any talk that McDonnell has an advantage in this year’s gubernatorial race because he “beat Deeds four years ago” should be swiftly dismissed as absurd.)

What lessons should we draw from the results?

First, money is a necessary but not sufficient resource. The biggest spender didn’t win the Democratic nomination, nor did the guy who was almost invisible on TV. Deeds didn’t have the most cash, but he had enough.

Second, polling in the state wasn’t as horrible as many of us assumed. While none of the surveys had Deeds winning by 24 points, most surveys picked up Deeds’ momentum. Public Policy Polling and SurveyUSA, in particular, had Deeds opening up a double-digit lead in their last polls. They deserve some applause for that, considering the difficulty of predicting the electorate in a low-turnout election.

Third, too many press spokesmen caught up in their own spinning and campaigns often get too cute by half in trying to use poll numbers — that they often know are misleading — to energize supporters.

Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post quoted McAuliffe senior adviser Mo Elleithee on Election Day as saying, “In the last 48 hours, the lead that Senator Deeds had taken in the last week started to collapse,” and an Elleithee Election Day get-out-the-vote e-mail cited the last night of a three-day tracking survey that showed Deeds and McAuliffe tied at 33 percent.

The e-mail was filled with disclaimers that the one-night results are “not definitive” and that the campaign never makes decisions “on one night’s worth of interviews because the sample is too small.” Nevertheless, the campaign released those numbers and constructed an argument based on them. The full three-night poll was never released, nor did Elleithee note that internal campaign polling over the previous week showed Deeds was pulling away and would win handily.

One McAuliffe campaign insider I spoke with after the results were in acknowledged that in the campaign’s final days “we knew things looked really bad, but things looked volatile.” That explanation is not convincing. In fact, those running the McAuliffe campaign knew very well what was happening.

The only conclusion possible is that the campaign was not telling the truth and that it was selectively using numbers that it knew should never be used to make a point that it knew was very dubious, at best.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on June 11, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.