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In Virginia, Who Votes Will Decide Who Wins

At the last three campaign events I've gone to, I've heard exactly the same opposing views from Virginians contemplating the June 9 Democratic gubernatorial primary: "It's only governor, so I don't think I need to vote" runs slam into "I'm tired of politics after last year, but this is for governor, so I guess I better get out there and vote."

In the Washington suburbs, attitudes toward local and state government are different from those in most places around the country. Because of proximity to the District and the large number of people who have some connection to the federal government, voters tend to be more aware than average of how government affects their lives. But they draw entirely different lessons from that extra dose of awareness: Some decide that the president and Congress are the key votes, while others conclude that the most direct democracy is the most crucial--the local and state offices that handle issues closest to people's daily lives.

In the battle to face Republican Bob McDonnell in November, the three Democrats desperately trying to win Virginians' attention in a rare June primary agree that the outcome of their race will be determined largely by who bothers to vote. When the last two times primaries were held for statewide office, in 2005 and 2006, fewer than four percent of voters made it to the polls.

Yet this vote will likely determine who is Virginia's next governor--not because the Democrat is destined to win in November (history strongly favors the party opposite from the one that controls the White House)--but because the three Democrats line up very differently against McDonnell, the state attorney general until earlier this year.

McDonnell is a social and fiscal conservative who grew up in Fairfax but has spent his adult life in the Hampton Roads area. A graduate of Rev. Pat Robertson's Regent University law school and recipient of more campaign dollars from Robertson than any other politician, McDonnell is nonetheless presenting himself this season as something of a moderate. His TV ads make no mention of his party and he's taken pains to note that the social agenda that played an important role in his legislative career is now secondary to the pressing tasks of easing transportation woes and getting Virginians back to work.

McDonnell is smart, telegenic and anything but harsh in manner. To beat him, Democrats must figure out a way to replicate the formula that put Mark Warner and Tim Kaine in the governor's house: They appealed to northern Virginia liberals and moderates who want action on top-quality schools and colleges, better roads and transit, and a health system commensurate with northern Virginia's affluent, well-educated population, even as they won over more conservative downstate independents who are put off by the Republicans' just-say-no mentality but are equally anxious about Democrats who forget to turn off the tax spigot.

Terry McAuliffe's path to power starts with celebrity and big bucks. His advantages are obvious: Money buys awareness, and McAuliffe's big personality would assure that the fall race would be about him, something both sides say they relish. McAuliffe, best known as Bill Clinton's longtime chief fundraiser, is supremely confident that his story--a dramatic, speedy rise to status as a legendary power broker--will translate into a sense among voters that he is a born executive, someone who gets things done. McDonnell, in contrast, is eager to portray McAuliffe as a symbol of everything that's wrong with politics--a glib, slick operator who's all about the money and power, rather than the people and their problems.

McAuliffe's route to victory depends on bringing out new voters, people who don't ordinarily pay close attention to Virginia politics, but who were energized by last fall's presidential race and want to keep pressing for change. He's paying especially close attention to bringing back to the polls black voters who generally turn out in particularly weak numbers in state primaries.

McAuliffe needs those people who often stay home because he's assuming that the winner among politically-involved voters will be Brian Moran, the longtime state House delegate from Alexandria.

Moran is the Bob Dole of this race: A well-liked, good-natured, smart insider who was the presumptive Democratic candidate--until Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton last year, demolishing McAuliffe's path back to the White House. Moran has run a curiously flat and narrow campaign. He's not nearly as dynamic a speaker as his two opponents, and although he's raised a lot of money, he seems to be husbanding much of it for a big emphasis on his home turf of northern Virginia and other urban centers. Moran is running to win the votes of those who are most likely to turn out--the party regulars, many of them inside-the-Beltway liberals who like his positions on the environment (he's the only one of the three who argues that coal can't be made clean) and gays (he's the only one of the three who supports gay marriage). But could Moran put himself in dire trouble in the fall if he wins the nomination by steering left?

The third candidate, state Sen. Creigh Deeds, is the wild card, the only Democrat from outside the Beltway, the only one with rural roots, the one who seems most at ease in a world where easy access to guns, the death penalty and opposition to gay marriage are matters of course. Deeds is not giving up on northern Virginia, but hopes to benefit if liberal voters here render themselves meaningless by splitting between McAuliffe and Moran.

So who will vote? If TV advertising determined turnout, McAuliffe would waltz to a win. But you need only look back one decade--to the GOP race for attorney general in 1997--to find a Virginia primary in which the only candidate who was not on TV ended up the victor.

The beauty of this primary is that despite the torrent of money being spent, despite the yammering on national TV and radio talk shows desperate for political topics in a year in which only Virginia and New Jersey have elections, no one knows who will come out. Polls mean little when the turnout is so unpredictable. Each vote really does count.

The politicians are busy promising to bring jobs to places where people are suffering; surely, no one believes that nonsense. But the state does have a large and direct impact on how we live--and the choices a governor makes will determine how many Virginians get educated to take on the next generation's jobs, who gets what kind of health care, and how attractive a place to live the state becomes. Amazingly, more than 90 percent of Virginians are likely to leave this choice to someone else. Those few voters get to deliver the surprise.

By Marc Fisher |  May 26, 2009; 7:42 AM ET  | Category:  Politics , Virginia
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Want to make a difference? Log onto and volunteer to help turn out the vote. Electing Terry McAuliffe will assure that Virginia continues on the upward path of progress blazed by the two most recent governors -- Senator Warner and Governor Kaine.

Posted by: Willis3 | May 26, 2009 6:09 PM

Quoting: "McDonnell, in contrast, is eager to portray McAuliffe as a symbol of everything that's wrong with politics--a glib, slick operator who's all about the money and power, rather than the people and their problems."

That's of course assumes the Democratic Party will be foolish enough the self-admitted "huckster".

Though I'm voting for Creigh Deeds, I'd be happy with him or Brian Moran. (I just happen to believe Deeds would be a better nominee with the ability to win in all parts of the Commonwealth.)

In my view nominating McAuliffe ensures that Bob McDonnell will be governor.

Think carefully next month Democrats.

Posted by: fakevirginia | May 26, 2009 9:45 PM

Voter turnout is the key and your analysis is quite correct that it is historically and consistently low in off-year elections. People are not thinking "elections" in June and that is a battle of awareness. In door knocking in my own neighborhood for Brian Moran, not only are people surprised to hear there is a primary election, but 95% of them are undecided among the three candidates. That is due largely to the fact that it's just not on their radar. Virginians suffer from voter fatigue and one of these days - soon - lets hope we can amend how the election cycle is handled in this great Commonwealth.

Posted by: csread | May 27, 2009 11:06 PM

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