The Magazine

Words and Deeds

Worn-out tactics in the Old Dominion.

Sep 21, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 01 • By GARY ANDRES
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A familiar refrain haunts Virginia politics these days. Democrats in the Old Dominion are whistling their favorite number: Republican gubernatorial hopeful Bob McDonnell is--cue the scary tune--"too extreme for Virginia."

The November 2009 governor's race is already generating national attention. It's one of only two statehouse contests this year (the other is in New Jersey), and the Democrats' first real electoral test in the Age of Obama. Democrats have controlled the governor's mansion in Richmond for the past eight years. And the state moved into the Democratic column last November for the first time since 1964 at the presidential level. So a Republican win could signal the beginning of a GOP comeback--both in Virginia and nationally.

As the campaign enters its final two months, polls show Democratic candidate Creigh Deeds trailing by more than ten percentage points, but the race will no doubt tighten. Democrats believe they have found a silver bullet in McDonnell's socially conservative views. The Washington Post has spent most of the past two weeks reminding its Northern Virginia readers that McDonnell wrote a thesis on the "Republican Party's Vision for the Family," in which he defended "the importance of the family in its God-ordained covenantal form" while working on a master's degree at Regent University in 1989. As a result, Republicans are bracing for a nasty campaign straight from political central casting that portrays the GOP standard bearer as a religious zealot.

Never mind that McDonnell--the state's former attorney general--premised his campaign on inclusion, pragmatism, and competence, not social issues. Or that he spent 14 years compiling a record in the state's House of Delegates. Or that the suburban Northern Virginia native offers detailed solutions to front-porch concerns such as improving schools, reducing traffic congestion, and bringing jobs to the state.

Deeds might not catch up on those issues. So a caricature that sends shivers through minivan-driving suburban swing voters is just what is needed. Paint McDonnell as a right-wing, anti-abortion, Bible-thumper. And call on the Post--always a reliable ally of Virginia Democrats--to provide the bullets for political character assassination.

Team Deeds won't win any originality awards for these tactics. Democrats and their allies used them against George Allen in the 2006 Senate race and, remarkably, even against John McCain in 2008. Why change a winning formula? "Trying to make McDonnell unacceptable to Northern Virginia women is probably the only thing that can save Deeds at this point," a Democratic operative in the state told me.

The electoral texture of the state, though, feels different this year. Echoes of 2008 are still fresh, but words like "change," "hope," and "post-partisanship" strike many as less believable than they were a year ago. The Obama track record makes campaigning here a special challenge for Democrats this cycle. The tactics of 2006 and 2008--when the state's independent voters (about a third of the electorate) were weary of Republicans--carry less punch today. "McDonnell doesn't have the baggage McCain had," a longtime Democratic activist told me.

Other state dynamics also hamper Deeds. Tim Kaine, the current governor, "had the luxury of succeeding Mark Warner, who was very popular," a Democratic activist in the state says. "Kaine is not Warner, and his additional role of chairing the Democratic National Committee isn't helping Deeds control the impact of national events," he adds. "That's not a good thing with the Democrats' national numbers falling."

Virginia also has its own tradition of political reaction. Since 1977, in every gubernatorial contest following a presidential election, the state has voted in the party that lost the White House a year earlier.

Some believe Deeds, a state legislator from rural Bath County on the far western edge of the state, is not well enough known to pull off a successful effort in the politics of personal destruction. Negative campaigns can produce powerful results, but they're not infallible. Attacks punctuate a narrative; they don't write the whole story. "Too many Virginians don't know Creigh Deeds. He runs the risk of just sounding nasty, mean, and negative," a longtime Republican activist told me.