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In Virginia, the Advantage Goes to Deeds

The first post-primary poll in Virginia, from Rasmussen, gave Democrat Creigh Deeds a 47-to-41 percent lead over showed over Republican Bob McDonnell. That’s a huge improvement for Deeds from a Rasmussen poll taken in April, which showed McDonnell ahead of him by 45 percent to 30 percent.

It’s only one poll, and no doubt Deeds is getting a nice bounce from his huge victory on Tuesday. But there are reasons to believe that Deeds, not McDonnelll, should now be viewed as the favorite in this race.

On primary night, Deeds thanked his opponents, Terry McAuliffe and Brian Moran, for making him a stronger candidate. The biggest favor they may have done Deeds is to give him a chance to introduce himself to Northern Virginia. After The Washington Post endorsed Deeds, money began flowing into his campaign and he was matching McAuliffe almost ad-for-ad in the Washington media market. Besides touting the Post endorsement, the ads pointed to two issues likely to help Deeds in D.C.’s Virginia suburbs: his support for abortion rights and his emphasis on education. The Post endorsement itself highlighted the biggest issue in the D.C. region, transportation, and it got a lot of play in Deeds’s ads.

The northern suburbs are the key for Deeds this time, just as they were key to Deeds’s 323 vote loss to McDonnell in the Attorney General’s race four years ago. In 2005, now-Gov. Tim Kaine carried the four big northern Virginia counties (Arlington, Fairfax, Loudon and Prince William) by 93,791 votes over Republican Jerry Kilgore. Deeds’s margin over McDonnell in the four counties was only 63,569. Those 30,222 votes were the difference between victory and defeat. If Deeds can hold his vote in the rest of the state from four years ago and perform better in the D.C. suburbs, he wins.

Now, thanks to the primary and all his advertising, Deeds is a known quantity in the four counties, and he carried all four over McAuliffe and Moran. Moreover, there may be more Democratic votes to be had in those counties than there were in 2005. In the 2006 U.S. Senate race, Jim Webb won by a far, far smaller margin statewide than Kaine had a year earlier, but he came out of the big four counties with a margin of 101,770 votes.

Yes, there is a difference between Virginians who vote in state races and the ones Virginia politicians call “federal voters,” who vote only in elections for president, the U.S. Senate and the House. Deeds will need some of those federal voters this fall. That’s one reason he went right after George W. Bush in his election night speech. Nationalizing the race will probably be helpful to Deeds in northern Virginia -- assuming that President Obama maintains a reasonable level of popularity.

It’s thus not surprising that one of Deeds’s first post-primary events is in the northern suburban heartland: a stop on Friday afternoon at the Silver Diner in Arlington with Sen. Mark Warner. Voters have already heard a lot in the primary about Deeds standing in the “Warner-Kaine tradition.” They will hear a lot more.

The other striking aspect of the primary vote is how overwhelmingly popular Deeds is in his own district and the area around it. He has reach in Republican areas of the state. Some of the primary returns were so overwhelmingly pro-Deeds that they looked the results once produced in Soviet elections. In his home County of Bath, Deeds got 800 votes to 25 for McAuliffe and 4 for Moran. In Covington, an independent city nearby, Deeds had 568 votes to 14 for McAuliffe and 4 for Moran. The local affection for Deeds was palpable at his victory party in Charlottesville. Of course the people there liked Deeds -- it was his party, after all. But I’ve attended many such events over the years, and at this one, the ties to the candidate seemed especially personal and strong.

Lastly, David Dixon, Deeds’s media consultant, argues that Deeds may have the easier task when it comes to self-presentation. Dixon says McDonnell is a very conservative politician who has to remake himself as a moderate. Deeds already is a moderate, so he can present himself as he is. My hunch: the Deeds campaign will move quickly to define McDonnell as a Pat Robertson sort of Republican before McDonnell can establish himself as a moderate.

Being the favorite doesn’t make Deeds the automatic winner. Indeed, being the underdog became Deeds, and he probably doesn’t want to be thought of as the front-runner. Democrats have been in power in Virginia for eight years, and it’s been very hard for a party to win three gubernatorial elections in a row. A severe dent to Obama’s popularity could hurt Deeds. And attacks on taxes, which we are sure to hear a lot of from McDonnell, can be especially effective in an economic downturn, when voters feel financially pressed.

Still, a race in which McDonnell seemed to have the advantage only a few weeks ago now tilts toward Deeds.

By E.J. Dionne  | June 11, 2009; 7:28 PM ET
Categories:  Dionne  | Tags:  E.J. Dionne  
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I don't know how valid the comparison is with Jim Webb, since as EJ notes, that's a federal office and different voters come out on those years. But I too see a lot in common between the two men at this early, pre-primary stage. In each case, Northern Virginia Democratic primary voters (like those in the rest of the state) chose someone with deep Virginia roots and moderate values who represented and could connect with the entire commonwealth rather than playing primarily to our regional interests and distinct politics. When it comes to statewide office, we want to be part of one big state, not thought of as a separate entity. It's better for all of us economically, socially, and in every other way. It's also reality.

Anyway, I sure hope the Webb-Deeds comparison is valid. Because Jim Webb actually won his Senate campaign that fall and, much as I love him as a Senator, he was about the worst and most reluctant campaigner on the face of the Earth. Webb's later book gives you the feeling that the campaign almost gave him a mental breakdown, it was so uncomfortable and upsetting. As an experienced elected official, Deeds will surely be a far better campaigner, giving him an additional advantage in winning votes well beyond the level set by Webb.

Posted by: fairfaxvoter | June 12, 2009 8:11 AM | Report abuse

Sorry, I meant "early, post-primary stage," not "early, pre-primary stage."

Posted by: fairfaxvoter | June 12, 2009 8:12 AM | Report abuse

I'm kind of curious about why McDonnell did so much better than Kilgore four years ago. I suspect that McDonnell's following is partly based on his connections to Pat Robertson. I think that while he runs as a moderate, those in the Christian right know him and support him heavily. In 2005, not being on the top of the ticket, McDonnell could run as a "stealth" evangelical while presenting himself as a moderate. One can be sure that right wing churches promoted him heavily four years ago. Can he replicate that strategy this time?

What I'd like to see is polling data on voters' perceptions of the candidates. McDonnell can't stay below the radar this time around the way he did the last time. The anti-McDonnell ads pointing out his anti-labor positions have to be taking a toll. It will be interesting to see if the pollsters do some real analysis on this race.

Posted by: jheath531 | June 12, 2009 11:40 AM | Report abuse

Initial response from the Democratic leadership gives me the feeling that they are very reluctant to play the "Pat Robertson" card for fear of a backfire from the religious right. Bottom line is that no candidate with a D behind there name is going to get that vote anyway. That brand of Christianity has ceased to be about spirituality and is all and only about right wing politics. It is important that the independant voters of Virginia be fully aware of the "golden boy" status of McDonald to the Pat Robertson empire. Hand picked, hand fed, and well groomed to be the "moderate" look of the Christian right wing as represented by Pat Robertson and his univerity.
Deeds is MUCH more conservative than I am, and I think he is plainly wrong in his support of "gun owner's rights". I voted for Moran. However, I recognized that Deeds is sincere, authentic, and substance instead of flash. It is important that he be presented that way to the public. He will not stand up and give a speech that will blow anyone away. It would be a tremedous mistake to try to make him flashy. The key word in describing Deeds, and the one that I would like to see as "thee word" in the campaign is SOLID . Virginians know that this is a good man, and will respond to him.

Posted by: potrafka | June 12, 2009 12:14 PM | Report abuse

I met Deeds in Arlington back in January and have seen him a dozen times since. He's been putting in a lot of time here and it will reflect in November.

Posted by: sbaker1 | June 12, 2009 12:54 PM | Report abuse

Regardless of which politician comes out ahead on Election Day, it will be a win for gun-rights advocates and the NRA.

Choke on it, EJ.

Posted by: NeverLeft | June 12, 2009 3:53 PM | Report abuse

If you take the votes received in each locality for McDonnell and Deeds in 2005 and adjust it for the change in the number of registered voters in each locality in 2009, Deeds would beat McDonnell by more than 8,000 votes. Bottom line is that the areas that went for Deeds in 2005 have more voters now than the areas that went for McDonnell.

Posted by: sensible | June 12, 2009 11:22 PM | Report abuse

Dionne is a partisan hack, his opinion is no more valuable than that of Keith Olbermann, or Bill Maher.

Posted by: SMWE357 | June 13, 2009 9:07 AM | Report abuse

sensible says: "Dionne is a partisan hack, his opinion is no more valuable than that of Keith Olbermann, or Bill Maher."

So, Dione is partisan? What of it? He writes an opinion column, ger g*d's sake. As for being a hack, can't quite agree there either. According to, a hack is:

"a professional who renounces or surrenders individual independence, integrity, belief, etc., in return for money or other reward in the performance of a task normally thought of as involving a strong personal commitment: a political hack."; or

"a person, as an artist or writer, who exploits, for money, his or her creative ability or training in the production of dull, unimaginative, and trite work; one who produces banal and mediocre work in the hope of gaining commercial success in the arts: As a painter, he was little more than a hack."

To be a hack according to the first sense, E.J. would have to disbelieve his own columns. Although I frequently disagree with Mr. Dionne, it seems clear that he believes what he writes. Given your strong reaction of an opinion piece you clearly disagree with, I'd say his writing is neither trite nor banal, either.

If you don't like the piece, disagree on the substance instead of dismissing the messenger. As it stands, your trivial ad hominem attack hardly leaves you in a strong position to dismiss someone as a "hack".

Posted by: lb99999999 | June 13, 2009 2:13 PM | Report abuse

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