Wednesday, November 4, 2009

What Happened in Virginia?

How could a state that one year ago sent two Democrats to the Senate, gave Democrats a 6-5 edge in House Representatives and voted Democrat for President for the first time since the 1960s overwhelmingly vote for a Republican for governor Tuesday night? How could Bob McDonnell stem the tide of blue that had overtaken the commonwealth of Virginia over the last couple years?

Well, there's the curious pattern of Virginia voting for the party not in the White House. When Bill Clinton was in office, the governor of Virginia was a Republican. When George W. Bush was president, Virginia puts Democrats in Richmond.

But there's something deeper -- well, several things. I can't speak much on the New Jersey governor's race, since I don't live there -- from what I hear, incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine was really unpopular -- but in Virginia, McDonnell's beatdown is pretty easy to explain.


No matter what happened, McDonnell's campaign was incredibly focused and stayed on-message. McDonnell tapped himself as "the jobs governor" early on, which was a politically-genius move. The label not only defined McDonnell's platform, but it was also easy to remember and kind of catchy -- it made for great posters and signs.

McDonnell's ads were also largely positive, focusing on his desire to gets Virginians back to work and how he would work to keep us safe. Even when Deomcrat candidate Creigh Deeds and the Washington Post got hold of a thesis McDonnell wrote in the 1980s while attending Regent University, in which the Republican complained about working women as well as "cohabitators, homosexuals and fornicators," McDonnell stayed on-message, choosing to fight off the charges by highlighting his daughter serving in Iraq and all the women who worked for McDonnell throughout his political career in Virginia.

In short, McDonnell ran a spot-on campaign.

By contrast, Deeds ran a sloppy, unorganized campaign. He never truly embraced one issue to run on -- his campaign was largely based on vagueries and the promise to continue former Gov. Mark Warner's economic policies (and inexplicably comparing McDonnell to Bush). While McDonnell was "the jobs governor," Deeds never adequately defined himself.

Deeds was also too quick to shun help from the White House, even though President Obama still had good approval numbers in Virginia. Fearing the state's independents were losing faith in the president, Deeds decided he didn't need the White House's help -- until last week, when Obama came to Norfolk to campaign for Deeds. By then, it was too late and the move smacked of desperation.

Simultaneously, Deeds went to the center; after the primaries, Deeds was to the left, but as the general campaign unfolded, he moved to the center -- claiming that becoming a moderate would help him with independents. The only thing it did, though, was upset the base (which I'll get to in a moment). Also not helping Deeds' cause? The fact that he insinuated he'd opt out of the public option that's currently being discussed in the Senate health care reform bill.

Deeds' ads were also far more negative than McDonnell's, especially when the GOP candidate's graduate thesis became public knowledge. Deeds focused intensely on the thesis, too much so. It became clear early on voters didn't care about the thesis -- either because they felt McDonnell's job proposals were more important, or they agreed with what was in the thesis.

The truth is probably a combination of both. But even when it was clear the attacks on McDonnell based on his right-wing thesis weren't working, Deeds kept hammering home the point, instead of focusing on what he would do for the state should he be elected. That further alienated independents and frustrated Democrats.

Off-year elections traditionally don't have the turnout of a presidential race, and the governor's race is no different. With the influx of new, young voters last year -- who overwhelmingly voted for Obama -- there was always the chance that those same voters would stay home when it came time to elect a governor or members of Congress.

It's been my experience that when college-age people register to vote for the first time, a lot of them think President is the only thing worth voting for. Sure, they'll vote for Senators and Congressmen if they're on the ballot that year, but off-year elections are not the territory for the young and minority voters.

The GOP knows this, and does a great job of mobilizing and exciting its base. In McDonnell's case, he managed to excite the base and grab the independents -- mostly by making himself appear moderate. Saying no to Sarah Palin had a lot to do with that, I think, as did McDonnell's insistence that his graduate thesis was over 20 years old, and that his views had changed since then.

Maybe they have, maybe they haven't.

I don't think Tuesday's results are a referendum on President Obama (see my point earlier about Virginia going against the party in the White House); I see it more as a race where McDonnell saw the issues that mattered to Virginians and hammered those home, while Deeds was unfocused and grasping at straws from day one.

Virginians care about jobs and the economy, and despite the ideological differences between McDonnell and myself (I still voted for Deeds, even with everything I just laid out), the fact remains that he did a really good job of talking about what mattered to the voters, and they turned out in droves to give him a massive win.

What will that mean for Virginia in the next four years? It's hard to tell, but if the Democrats want to make the commonwealth blue again -- it's only slightly blue at the moment -- then it needs to see what went wrong with the Deeds campaign and what McDonnell did right. The governor's race in Virginia was a combination of McDonnell's strengths, Deeds' weaknesses and a general apathy among the commonwealth's newfound electorate.

Combine those three things, and you get the 59-41 split we saw Tuesday night. The GOP will make more of it than it really is -- RNC chairman Michael Steele already has -- but unlike most things in politics, McDonnell's victory can be viewed inside a vacuum.

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