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The Washington Post Loses in Virginia

How their effort to beat McDonnell backfired.

11:00 PM, Nov 3, 2009 • By JENNIFER RUBIN
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Bob McDonnell won big tonight in the Virginia gubernatorial race, as did the entire Virginia Republican party. The implications of the race will be sorted out soon enough. But one big loser is the Washington Post which may unwittingly have helped the Republican, despite their best efforts to put his opponent over the top.

On the last weekend in August the Post ran the first of dozens of stories about McDonnell's 1989 masters' thesis, in which he wrote, among other things, that working women were detrimental to families and that government should favor traditional marriage over gay unions. While they didn't know the exact target, the McDonnell camp was expecting, as one top adviser put it, a "hatchet job" from the Post. A top campaign strategist says, "We always knew we'd have to fend off some attack from the Post, probably on a social issue. But in all candor we didn't expect the thesis. It was a 20 year old paper."

The Post was off and running, harping on the story for weeks. It was, some conservatives feared, a replay of the infamous "macaca moment" (a more successful Post election obsession) which helped sink George Allen's 2006 Senate campaign.

The McDonnell camp quickly made some critical tactical decisions. First, the Monday after the story broke McDonnell held a 90-minute media call to explain his views, and answer all questions. Second, rather than respond to every potential allegation they focused on the most potent one--that McDonnell was hostile to working women. His TV ads focused heavily on this issue, featuring testimonials by his daughters and women who had worked for him.

Larry J. Sabato explains that "the thesis story actually helped Deeds at first. For nearly a month the contents of McDonnell's thesis closed the gap to a near-tie." But then Deeds went, as one party insider says, "bonkers" over the issue, badly overplaying his hand. McDonnell communications director Tucker Martin says, "It was like someone threw a tennis ball over the fence and we all watched the Labrador Retriever race after it, leaving the whole yard to us." Deeds rolled out TV ads and a Twitter feed devoted to the thesis and even organized book clubs to conduct "readings" of the thesis.

One McDonnell adviser says that it took a "lot of discipline" both to narrow the focus and to continue to stick to his positive, issue-oriented message. One day no fewer than 11 Post editors and reporters peppered the campaign with thesis queries.

McDonnell's aides nevertheless wondered if the voters were really all that interested. (Referring to a particularly ineffective web ad which clicked through to the entire 93-page thesis, one Republican observed, "Are you kidding me?!") And the issue, as Martin notes, "played into every one of Deeds's worst instincts." His lack of discipline, inattention to policy, and his penchant for negativity were on full display.

The McDonnell camp began highlighting reams of local media op-eds criticizing Deeds's bitterly negative race. That pushback -- together with the flood of Deeds screechy attack ads transformed his image from favorable to unfavorable. One Deeds ad on the thesis featured a dozen outraged women. A prominent northern Virginia Republican activist says that these were "very angry women that most working women just didn't identify with." As campaign manager Phil Cox put it, "It is difficult to deliver a negative message when voters don't like or trust you."

Deeds's onslaught committed him to an entirely negative strategy based on a college paper. A key moment came in the September 17 Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce debate when, as campaign chairman Ed Gillespie recounts, "He wouldn't let it go. Deeds brought it up for the fourth time. The audience audibly groaned. It had become a kind of self-parody." By early October the thesis issue was essentially dead.

The story here is a classic case of overreach by a mainstream paper drunk on its own hubris, and convinced it could re-orient the race from a bread-and-butter issue contest (which McDonnell was winning) to a culture war clash that liberals thought Deeds could win. But it is also a lesson for Republican candidates about preparation and outreach to women voters.