VA-Gov: Democratic Primary Preview

With this year's hottest contest taking place tomorrow -- the three-way Democratic primary for governor between Terry McAuliffe, Brian Moran and Creigh Deeds -- ...
by | June 8, 2009

With this year's hottest contest taking place tomorrow -- the three-way Democratic primary for governor between Terry McAuliffe, Brian Moran and Creigh Deeds -- I thought that Josh Goodman and I could engage in an electronic dialogue about it.

But it turned out that Josh had so much to say that I'll just lob some questions and then get out of his way:

AG: Josh, let's start at the end. Who do you think will win, and why?

JG: Yesterday, I would probably have said Terry McAuliffe. We were dealing with an election that was basically a three-way tie. McAuliffe should have the best ground game, since he has the big labor endorsements and the most money.

Today, with a poll out showing Creigh Deeds ahead by 14%, it's pretty much impossible not to say Deeds. I'll say this, though: I don't think he's actually going to win by 14%.

For Brian Moran, I don't really see a path to victory. He hasn't made substantial inroads outside of his base in North Virginia. To win, he'd have to completely dominate the places that overlap with his brother's congressional district: Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax. He'd also probably have to win other parts of Northern Virginia and do really well in Richmond (where he has the mayor's endorsement). I just don't see it happening.

McAuliffe also needs to do well in the Richmond area (where none of the candidates have a natural base) and in the Hampton Roads area in the Southeastern part of Virginia. McAuliffe has polled well with black voters, but it's not clear he can get them to show up in large numbers. McAuliffe's biggest problem may be Northern Virginia, where Deeds is surging and Moran has his home turf. It's ironic that McAuliffe, criticized for his Beltway background, could see his campaign undone inside the Beltway.

Deeds doesn't have to win Northern Virginia, he just needs to perform respectably. He's hoping for a good turnout in Appalachian Valley and Southwestern Virginia, where he ought to do well.

AG: What do you think is behind this Deeds surge? Does a newspaper endorsement really hold that kind of sway?

JG: This is the weird situation where a newspaper endorsement actually does matter. Until a few weeks ago, Virginia Democrats were really ambivalent to the three candidates. Voters weren't really paying much attention, so whatever little bit of information they received to suggest which candidate was best could have an impact. Then the Washington Post stepped in and endorsed Deeds.

The Washington Post is a pretty respected voice for Democrats in Virginia state politics. The Post will endorse Virginia Republicans in federal elections (John Warner, Tom Davis, Frank Wolf). The Post will endorse Republicans in Maryland state politics (Bob Ehrlich over Martin O'Malley in 2006). But, in Virginia state politics, the Post has made a habit of castigating Republicans, especially for opposing any tax increases that would increase transportation funding for Northern Virginia. If you want to get a sense of the Post's tone, this editorial about former Republican Gov. Jim Gilmore is the place to start.

A ll of this is to say that when the Post says that Deeds is the best candidate to continue the legacy of Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, at least some Democrats are likely to listen. Deeds' under-funded campaign wasn't making much noise in Northern Virginia prior to the endorsement. The Post introduced him to Northern Virginians without the campaign spending a penny.   That said, the endorsement isn't the only reason for Deeds' gains. McAuliffe and Moran seemed to think for a while that they were the only candidates who could win and acted accordingly. Though the campaign hasn't been especially negative, the negativity (at least until very recently) has been between McAuliffle and Moran. Negativity is always risky in a three-way race. Nate Silver made the analogy to the 2004 Democratic Iowa caucuses and I think that's a good one. Frontrunners Dick Gephardt and Howard Dean went nuclear on one another and ended up finishing third and fourth. The Virginia campaign hasn't been that negative, but the dynamics are the same.   Finally, Virginia Democrats really want to win in November. Moran has tried to court primary voters by taking more liberal stances -- in favor of repealing the state's gay marriage ban, for example -- but those moves may raised doubts that he is too liberal to win. For McAuliffe, the question is whether he is too slick to appeal to Virginia voters. Deeds' electability isn't without questions, but I think a lot of voters have concluded he's the one with the best chance to win.

AG: Well, what is your own thought about that last point - electability? There's been a lot of talk that the strong run Virginia Democrats have made in recent years can't be sustained and that many of the voters who came out for Obama last year will sit out an odd-numbered year election. Does McDonnell have an advantage, or has he simply looked good while the Democrats have been tearing each other apart?

JG: I think that McDonnell has the advantage, even though I'm not ready to make any grand judgments about whether Democratic gains in Virginia are sustainable. He's simply in a stronger position as a candidate.   McDonnell was state attorney general, until he gave up the job to run for governor earlier this year. That perch allowed him to present himself to Virginians in a favorable light (by cracking down on Internet predators, etc.). Even more importantly, McDonnell has tons of money. Virginia has no contribution limits, so McDonnell has stockpiled millions of dollars for the general election. Whichever Democrat wins, he will probably start with virtually no cash-on-hand.   That said, I certainly wouldn't count any of the Democratic candidates out in a general election. If Deeds is the nominee (and another poll just showed him with a 12-point primary lead), this will be an especially intriguing election because Deeds was McDonnell's opponent for attorney general in 2005. McDonnell won that race by only a few hundred votes.   I've heard wildly different interpretations of that election and its meaning for a McDonnell-Deeds race this year. Deeds supporters argue that he had far less money than McDonnell, but still only lost barely (which is true). They also say that Virginia is somewhat more Democratic than it was in 2005 (also probably true), which should be enough to make up those few hundred votes.   On the other hand, Deeds skeptics say that he had less money than McDonnell because he's not a great fundraiser -- which is why he's likely to have less money again this time (true). They also note that Tim Kaine was winning at the top of the Democratic ticket in 2005, but that Deeds couldn't match his performance (again, true).   Overall, I'd give McDonnell an ever-so-slight edge against Deeds this time around. Still, Deeds, if he wins the nomination, will be in as good shape as any candidate could hope for after a hotly contested primary. Since most of the intraparty sniping has been between Moran and McAuliffe, Deeds shouldn't have any trouble uniting his party.


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