Shad Planking Kicks Off Virginia Governor Race

Shad Planking Kicks Off Virginia Governor Race

Kyle Trygstad - April 16, 2009

WAKEFIELD, Va. -- Winding through a back country Virginia road yesterday, Terry McAuliffe's fundraising prowess could not be missed. Campaign signs for McAuliffe, a Clinton fundraiser turned gubernatorial candidate, blanketed both sides of the pavement leading to the grounds of the Shad Planking -- the annual political event, featuring smoked fish and flowing booze, held deep in the woods an hour south of Richmond.

Not one sign along the path included the names of Creigh Deeds or Brian Moran, McAuliffe's June 9 Democratic primary foes. There was no way they could compete and didn't try to. Nor will either candidate keep pace with the money McAuliffe has spent and will spend over the next eight weeks.

According to campaign finance reports due yesterday, McAuliffe raised more than $4.2 million in the first three months of the year and spent $2.5 million during that time. As of the end of March, McAuliffe had almost $2.5 million in the bank left to spend.

"I plan on doing it all," McAuliffe told RealClearPolitics when asked how he planned to spend his money. "I've been doing this now for 118 days straight. I ain't stopping now."

Both Deeds and Moran have raised enough money to run viable campaigns, but neither are in McAuliffe's ballpark. Moran's booth yesterday played "Can't Buy Me Love" on a continuous loop, and the beer cups they handed out read: "Money isn't everything. Running for Virginia is."

Instead, the two longtime state legislators are focusing their efforts on more grassroots -- and netroots -- approaches.

Moran signed up Jerome Armstrong, a netroots pioneer who founded the blog "MyDD," to run his online outreach efforts. As Armstrong told RCP yesterday, Moran's campaign website includes a self-organizing platform for supporters that is reminiscent of the one used by President Obama's campaign.

Deeds, a state senator, skipped the backwoods show yesterday, choosing instead to hit the stump with U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher, a southwestern Virginia Democrat who endorsed Deeds five months ago. Deeds and Moran, a former state delegate, have a lot of the same friends who were forced to choose between the two when deciding who to endorse.

Oppositely, McAuliffe's website boasts the endorsements of just three state legislators, and he joked during his speech yesterday that he has a "real grassroots campaign." Recent polls have found McAuliffe trailing Moran by as much as 5 points, with some four in 10 Virginia voters still undecided.

With Democratic primaries in Virginia traditionally low-turnout affairs, the McAuliffe campaign is aiming at turning out those that normally wouldn't -- much as the Obama campaign did last year. While close to 1 million voted in the February 2008 Democratic presidential primary in Virginia, just 155,000 voted in the 2006 Senate primary between Democrats Jim Webb and Harris Miller.

"Terry's strategy basically counts on getting a new electorate," said a Northern Virginia elected official who has publicly backed Moran. "It's what I call getting a bunch of people to commit an unnatural act -- which is to vote in a Democratic primary."

While the official said he expects McAuliffe to be on the air at a "presidential level" -- McAuliffe aired his first TV ad in January, which is unheard of in a Virginia primary -- he noted that Moran and Deeds were counting on elected officials like him to "get the word out to their circle of people."

Despite Republicans' recent losses in the state -- the 2005 race for governor, 2006 Senate race, and 2008 presidential, Senate and House races -- the winner of the primary faces a competitive and proven competitor: Bob McDonnell, who recently resigned his post as attorney general to focus on the gubernatorial race fulltime. A Rasmussen poll released today shows McDonnell leading all three Democrats by double digits.

The outcome of the general election has the potential to carry national implications as a momentum builder for the parties heading into the 2010 midterm elections. In 1993, Republicans swept the major elections of the year -- Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial, and New York and Los Angeles mayoral -- en route to taking over power in Congress the following year.

While a Democrat has already won the L.A. race and a Republican is unlikely to win this year in New York City, Virginia and New Jersey are very much in play. Consequently, McDonnell told reporters yesterday that he is "regularly" in contact with national party organizations.

"The Republican National Committee, the Republican Governors Association, a number of other people around the country are very motivated to help us," McDonnell said. "They're going to do some significant things for us. I'm certainly not on my own."

Outside groups are also descending upon Virginia to oppose McDonnell. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg appeared in Arlington on Monday to oppose the state's gun show loophole, which the three Democrats have opposed but McDonnell has not. Bloomberg also helped finance a TV ad airing in the state that targets McDonnell.

With no limits on financial contributions in Virginia and outside interest so high, many expect the general election to be a wild ride -- no matter who wins the Democratic primary. Over the next few weeks, the three Democratic candidates will appear at five debates, with the first one taking place Sunday in Williamsburg.

Although the events and speeches at the Shad Planking may not have much consequence on the election, it served as a celebratory kick-start to the gubernatorial race.

Kyle Trygstad is a Washington correspondent for RealClearPolitics. Email him at: Follow him on Twitter @KyleTrygstad.

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