Virginia Senate Special: A Repeat of Deeds and McDonnell?

See if this election taking place tomorrow in Virginia sounds familiar. The Democratic candidate is running as a centrist and facing criticism for where he ...
by | January 11, 2010
 

See if this election taking place tomorrow in Virginia sounds familiar. The Democratic candidate is running as a centrist and facing criticism for where he lives. The Republican is a conservative whose past statements on social issues have been a source of controversy.

In other words, it's just like Creigh Deeds and Bob McDonnell all over again.

This is the special election in the 37th State Senate District to replace newly elected Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a Republican. As I've mentioned before, this race is key for political control of Virginia. Republicans control the Virginia House of Delegates and the governorship. A G.O.P. win in Fairfax County's 37th District would leave the Democrats with only a fragile 21-19 edge in the Senate ahead of redistricting.

As the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Deeds, you'll remember, touted his rural roots, but they ended up as something of a liability. Deeds was from Bath County (with a population around 5,000) on the West Virginia border, not from the state's population centers in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. A stronger electoral base probably would have been an asset.

The Democratic candidate in the special election, Del. Dave Marsden, isn't off by a couple hundred miles. Instead, he's off by a couple hundred feet. Though he represents some of the same precincts in the House of Delegates, Marsden lives (lived?) just outside the district. He's rented part of a house in the district for the campaign, but has been called a carpetbagger.

The stronger part of the comparison: Marsden, like Deeds, is campaigning as a moderate. Marsden is running as a fiscal conservative. One lingering question after Deeds' defeat was whether he demoralized his base by running too far to the center. I'm not sure that criticism of Deeds was fair (he did eventually support tax increases and spend a lot of time on the thesis, which was red meat to the base), but, if so, Marsden appears to be making the same mistake.

On the Republican side, McDonnell had his controversial graduate thesis. In the 37th District, when Republican nominee Steve Hunt was on the Fairfax County school board, he sent a letter to principals criticizing homosexuality and asking schools to host "ex-gay" speakers. Hunt later apologized, but lost his reelection bid in 2007. In the campaign, Hunt has focused more on fiscal issues and has styled himself as an anti-tax alternative to Marsden.

The big question, of course, is whether the result will be the same as the Deeds-McDonnell contest, where the Republican won easily.

I don't know that Fairfax County residents will care about Marsden'a residency -- it's not as though he comes from some strange, distant place. Likewise, most people are more focused on economic issues than social issues right now, which will help mute the impact of Hunt's letter.

Still, it's worth remembering that McDonnell actually did seem to be hurt by the thesis storyline -- for a little while. Then, he mustered an effective, aggressive ad campaign and never looked back. The special Senate race is different. The campaign is shorter and the candidates aren't as well funded. Hunt didn't have the same capacity to counterattack.

But, that probably won't matter. The underlying dynamics in this race probably are more important than the noise of the campaign. The 37th District is a swing seat, but the Republican enthusiasm advantage is giving them a clear edge in special elections right now. If Hunt loses, I'll be surprised. Of course, it's easy to say that when you know that a (Republican) internal poll put Hunt ahead.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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