VA-GOV: Slow and Steady Wins for Deeds

The Democratic primary for governor in Virginia ended up being the story of the tortoise and the hares. The hares were Terry McAuliffe and Brian ...
by | June 9, 2009

Deeds Wins The Democratic primary for governor in Virginia ended up being the story of the tortoise and the hares. The hares were Terry McAuliffe and Brian Moran. The tortoise was Creigh Deeds. You know how this one ends.

Deeds, a state senator, easily won the nomination yesterday, taking about 50% of the vote and winning jurisdictions in every corner of the state. Even a month ago, no one, not even the most diehard Deeds supporters, would have predicted that he would dominate the field in this way.

Before we turn our attention to the general election -- which should be close and hard-fought -- it's worth looking back at how Deeds won. So far as I can tell, he won by running an exceptionally disciplined, patient campaign.

Deeds ran for statewide office in 2005, just barely losing a race for attorney general. Yet he began the campaign largely undefined in the eyes of most Democratic voters. If he was in a hurry to change that, he sure didn't show it.

Terry McAuliffe started running television ads in January, hoping to use his financial edge to swamp the opposition. Brian Moran resigned his seat in the House of Delegates because Virginia lawmakers can't raise money during legislative sessions. He launched the first attack of the campaign in February, saying that Virginia needed "a fighter, not a fundraiser," -- an obvious jab at McAuliffe.

While Moran sparred with McAuliffe, Deeds ran an inoffensive, workmanlike campaign, He didn't resign from his Senate seat. He didn't launch any notable attacks. And, he didn't appear as though he was going to win. One poll in early May showed him only with 14% support. Another one, from Mid-May, showed him at just 13%.

But, McAuliffe and Moran's support was soft. Voters gave Deeds a second look (or perhaps a first look), as they sought a positive, electable option. Then, Deeds won the Washington Post's endorsement and his momentum really picked up. While he raised the least money, Deeds had done a better job hoarding his campaign cash than Moran (this reminds me of the ant and the grasshopper), which allowed him to make a robust final push.

I live in Arlington County, Virginia and I can tell you that our medians were crowded with McAuliffe and Moran signs long before any signs for Deeds showed up. Even a week ago, you could hardly find a Deeds sign. Deeds, though, had waited long enough to print his signs that he could emblazon them with "Washington Post endorsed." By last weekend, they were everywhere.

As Deeds surged, McAuliffe and Moran were caught napping. They hadn't presented the case against Deeds at any point during the campaign. In the final days, they tried to hit Deeds for his record against gun control, but the attacks rang hollow because no one had been talking about gun control as a top issue. Deeds, shockingly, won in a rout.

Winning campaigns always seem brilliant in retrospect and losing ones look as though they were bumbling. While Deeds' campaign did appear to me to be well-managed, the truth is that his strategy was more a matter of necessity than choice.

He didn't have the money to run an aggressive campaign early and still have anything left for the home stretch. He couldn't resign from the legislature like Moran because doing so would have created a special election for his seat. That would have jeopardized Democrats 21-19 edge in the Senate -- and infuriated Deeds' own party.

Whether Deeds' campaign was brilliant or not, in an era where one campaign seems to begin as soon as the previous one ends, there's something striking about a candidate coming from out of nowhere in the final weeks. The next time I hear about a candidate running campaign ads six months before an election, I'll be reminded of this Virginia primary.

Deeds' win also sets up an intriguing general election. He will face Republican Bob McDonnell, the man who beat him by 323 votes for attorney general in 2005. That the election is in Virginia, America's great new swing state, gives us all the more reason to watch.

Deeds' victory was convincing enough (and his campaign was positive enough) that he shouldn't have any trouble uniting his party. Still, he shouldn't rest on his victory. McDonnell won't be caught napping.

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

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