VA-Gov: Who is the Most Electable Democrat?

You'll be shocked to learn that all three Democrats who are running for governor of Virginia say they favor good jobs, public education and ...
by | April 29, 2009

You'll be shocked to learn that all three Democrats who are running for governor of Virginia say they favor good jobs, public education and environmental protection. While the Virginia press really ought to spend some time digging into whatever small policy differences exist between Terry McAuliffe, Creigh Deeds and Brian Moran, I have the luxury of focusing on a much more exciting topic: electability.

What's interesting about the June 9 Democratic primary is that you can make a plausible case for McAuliffe, Deeds or Moran as the most electable candidate. What's even more interesting is that you also can make a plausible case for each one as the least electable candidate.

With Bob McDonnell, who was elected state attorney general in 2005, as the Republican candidate, Virginia Democrats know their recent winning streak is in jeopardy. As a result, in the primary many Democrats are likely to pick the candidate they believe has the best chance to win in November.

Here's the case for and against each candidate:

Terry McAuliffe is the most electable candidate because...

When Al Groh took over as the University of Virginia's football coach, he confidently declared that as a former NFL head coach, he'd be playing chess, as the rest of the Atlantic Coast Conference played checkers. Well, Terry McAuliffe is playing chess while the rest of the Democratic field plays checkers.

McAuliffe has a series of advantages as the former head of the Democratic National Committee who has been involved in national politics for decades. Most obviously, McAuliffe can raise the most money -- his cash on hand at the end of March was well over $1 million more than Deeds or Moran, even though he was the last one to get in the race.

There are other advantages too. McAuliffe can count on a top-notch team of advisers. He's the candidate who can bring in people like Bill Clinton to campaign on his behalf. There will be nothing amateur about the McAuliffe campaign.

Also of note: While Deeds and Moran have voting records in the state legislature that could cause them trouble, McAuliffe doesn't.

McAuliffe is the least electable candidate because...

Without a doubt, he's the most polarizing candidate in the Democratic field. Part of the reason is that he's the one with the least experience in Virginia state politics. While McAuliffe has lived in Virginia for quite a while, his outsider status will create several potential lines of attack for McDonnell: That he doesn't understand Virginia's problems or that he's only running for the sake of personal ambition or vanity.

McAuliffe also simply rubs some people the wrong way. Polls generally have shown him with the highest negatives in the Democratic field, with nearly a third of likely Democratic voters disapproving of him, according to one poll.

My theory is that McAuliffe has spent so much time spinning on T.V., as head of the Democratic Party and then as an adviser to Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, that some voters doubt his sincerity. Regardless, McAuliffe would desperately need the votes of the Democrats who currently don't like him in order to win in November.

Al Groh, I should add, has a mediocre 56-44 record at U.Va. and has lost to Virginia Tech five consecutive years.

Creigh Deeds is the most electable candidate because...

Deeds, a state senator, is the only Democratic candidate with natural advantages in Republican regions of the state. He's from Bath County on the West Virginia border.

Deeds should win a few votes on his home turf that other Democrats wouldn't. Plus, being from Bath may allow Deeds to position himself as a different kind of Democrat when he campaigns in conservative areas in Southwest and Southside Virginia.

What's more, Deeds is the only Democrat who has competed statewide previously. He ran for attorney general in 2005, losing to McDonnell by only 323 votes. The Virginia of 2009 is at least a little bit more Democratic than the Virginia of 2005.

Supporters of Moran and McAuliffe have been locked in an increasingly negative struggle. Deeds may be the only candidate every Democrat could back enthusiastically.

Creigh Deeds is the least electable candidate because...

The big reason Deeds lost that 2005 race was money. McDonnell brought in millions more than Deeds. The Republican almost certainly would bring in more money again this time.

And, it's not clear that Deeds could compensate for that disadvantage by exciting the grassroots. His folksy style might not play well in Northern Virginia, where Democrats need a good turnout to win. He's not regarded as a great public speaker.

Brian Moran is the most electable candidate because...

Virginia has tilted to the Democrats because of the party's improved fortunes in Northern Virginia. Moran, of course, is the only candidate they have who has held elected office in Northern Virginia. He, like Mark Warner, Virginia's most popular politician, hails from Alexandria.

Moran, who resigned as a state legislator in December, is also in some ways the happy medium between Deeds and McAuliffe. He's perhaps more polished than Deeds, with a clear understanding of Virginia issues and lower negatives at this stage than McAuliffe.

Moran has drawn the most interest from national Democratic bloggers, who are openly hostile to McAuliffe and haven't paid much attention to Deeds. Joe Trippi, who helped cultivate Howard Dean's online support, is working for Moran. As a result, he probably would have better chance than Deeds to stick with McDonnell financially.

Moran is the least electable candidate because...

Moran has never campaigned statewide and he's never sought office in a place that wasn't overwhelmingly Democratic. His appeal to swing voters, therefore, is completely unproven. While he's clearly been preparing for statewide office for some time, it's quite likely that in representing Alexandria he occasionally took stands that are out of step with the state as a whole.

Despite his potential, Moran has flopped as a fundraiser so far. After the first quarter financial reports, he had less money on hand than Deeds, even though Deeds, as a sitting legislator, hadn't been allowed to raise money during the legislative session.

Moran's fundraising also has reopened questions about whether his controversial big brother, U.S. Rep. Jim Moran, will prove a liability. Brian Moran has been taking in money from defensive contractors that are cozy with his brother.

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

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