Virginia Loss Showcases Democratic Troubles

Virginia Loss Showcases Democratic Troubles

By Kyle Trygstad - November 4, 2009

RICHMOND, Va. -- Democrats in Virginia had been bracing for a losing hand on election night, and voters dealt them just that. Former attorney general Robert F. McDonnell entered Election Day with a lead in the polls of more than 13 points over R. Creigh Deeds, a longtime state legislator. It took a recount to decide the two candidates' previous face-off -- the 2005 attorney general's race -- but that wouldn't be needed this time. McDonnell ended the day with a commanding 18-point win to become the state's next governor.

A social conservative who successfully ran on bread and butter pocketbook issues, McDonnell racked up huge victories in the key exurban counties of Loudoun and Prince William, which Gov. Tim Kaine carried in 2005 and President Obama won just a year ago. He also carried Fairfax County, which Obama won by 21 points.

McDonnell's victory ends a Democratic winning streak that, after Obama's success in 2008, the party thought would continue in the Old Dominion. Mark Warner's gubernatorial victory in 2001 and successful term as governor set the stage for the run, which continued with Kaine's 2005 win, Jim Webb knocking off then-Sen. George Allen in 2006, Warner winning the other Senate seat in 2008 and Obama ending 44 years of GOP dominance in presidential elections.

Many believe the results here, as well as the GOP upset in New Jersey, could also spell trouble for Democrats nationwide, with the midterm congressional elections just around the corner. With many precincts still left to be counted last night, the National Republican Congressional Committee highlighted the election results in three Virginia congressional districts represented by freshman Democrats -- McDonnell was well ahead in all three.

While Deeds's inability to continue the blue streak is official, the reasons for it vary. Many political observers blame the Deeds campaign for being inept and lacking discipline, while also recognizing an unmistakable shift in the national mood from a year ago.

The Deeds campaign knocked on more than a half million doors over the last two weekends of the race in an effort to get out the Obama surge voters the campaign was calling their "sleeping giants." However, turnout in key Democratic cities and counties remained extremely low, as Deeds failed to energize the base.

According to Democratic sources in Virginia, one issue for Deeds was that voters never got a clear picture of who he was. While Deeds often mentioned his rural roots in Bath County and his long record in the state legislature, the lasting image for many rank-and-file Democrats was the campaign's focus on McDonnell's socially conservative graduate school thesis, in which he espoused controversial opinions about a woman's place in society.

While initial news of the thesis, first reported in late August by The Washington Post, seemed to move some independent voters in Deeds's direction, the campaign's failure to put it in a greater context and persistence of negative ads sent them right back to McDonnell's column. By the end of September, the polls began again moving in McDonnell's direction and never stopped.

Part of the reason for McDonnell's resurgence in the polls was his campaign's measured and decisive response to the thesis coverage, including well-produced campaign ads that showed him as a loving husband and father of three daughters and two sons.

"The thing that tops all is discipline," said one Democratic source. "McDonnell has got that in spades and Creigh just doesn't."

Thanks to the national GOP, voters saw evidence of Deeds's discipline problems nearly every time they turned on their TVs, as the Republican Governors Association aired two separate ads highlighting a costly Deeds stumble. During the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce debate in mid-September, Deeds said he would not raise taxes, but during a press gaggle with reporters afterward, he backtracked and appeared unsure of his actual stance. The ads were simply 30 seconds of Deeds talking to reporters.

To combat the gaffe, the campaign published an op-ed in The Washington Post in which Deeds said he would indeed raise taxes if necessary in order to pay for transportation upgrades -- something neither Warner nor Kaine said they would do during their gubernatorial bids.

"This is no time to be talking about raising anyone's taxes," former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder said in an interview yesterday with RealClearPolitics. "Bob McDonnell had all that together and caught Deeds going back and forth on the issue."

Wilder, who refused to endorse Deeds despite White House entreaties, and Virginia political analyst Robert Holsworth both told RCP that the Deeds campaign failed to recognize a changing national climate, which is reacting to complete Democratic control of Washington and unprecedented spending in the midst of a down economy.

"At a time when independent voters are concerned that out-of-control federal spending will result in increased taxes for ordinary citizens, Deeds took a position that essentially confirmed their worst fears," said Holsworth. "In the end, it was a campaign that responded poorly to the altered national environment."

Speaking with reporters inside McDonnell's election night headquarters about an hour before the polls closed, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele also said Democrats misread the national mood and entered the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections with blinders on.

"Is this a blow to them? Absolutely," said Steele. "Had they paid attention this summer and fall, they would have seen the writing on the wall."

Having seen their potential losses ahead of time, Democrats have been busy in recent days spinning the results, including quoting Republican talking points from 2001, when the GOP claimed the Democratic wins in New Jersey and Virginia had no bearing on the 2002 midterms.

"Traditionally these races right after the presidential year are very focused on local issues and haven't been much of a bellwether for the midterms," Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine, the outgoing Virginia governor, said Monday in an interview on MSNBC.

While local issues and the candidates themselves certainly play a significant role in the elections, it's no coincidence that the party that wins the White House has lost each ensuing Virginia gubernatorial race since 1977. With McDonnell's election, that trend lives on. So does the similar streak in New Jersey, which began in 1985.

"If the national Democratic Party is as unresponsive to the changed circumstances as the Deeds campaign was, the results of next year's congressional elections could look eerily similar," said Holsworth.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who chairs the Republican Governors Association, told RealClearPolitics in an interview last night that the most important effect of the election results, in terms of next year's midterm elections, could be GOP candidate recruitment. Barbour was chairman of the Republican National Committee in 1993 when Republicans swept the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races, a year before taking control of Congress.

"Those wins enthused our volunteers, our organization people, our donors, but more than anything else, it made people who were thinking about running for office say to themselves, ‘Well if I'm ever going to run, I might as well run now,'" said Barbour. "More than half of the 73 freshman Republican congressmen elected in 1994 made the decision to run after the 1993 elections."

Barbour and Wilder both said that spending in Washington really hurt the Democrats yesterday, and Democrats in Washington should take notice. Wilder also noted that the tilt of independent voters in Virginia in favor of McDonnell is another signal to leadership in Washington that something needs to change.

"This is no time for the spending that they're doing," said Wilder. "They need to get their act together in Washington."

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

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