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Is this year’s governor’s race already over?

 There are still nearly three weeks until the election. The candidates have turned up the volume and are working frantic schedules. Indeed, the campaign has reached that critical stage just before the big push. That’s when most of the money, mostly on TV advertising is going to be spent.

During the past two campaigns for governor, these last two weeks have been critical. The 2005 and 2001 elections were close. However, this year, many are asking, is it already over? And the reply, and my apologies to my Democratic friends, is yes, it probably is.
The Democratic campaign has been in trouble for months now. For a while it looked like it might be a horse race, but that didn’t last, and now it looks like the GOP is poised to win this one. If they do, it will be their first victory in a governor’s race since 1997.
Creigh Deeds, the Democratic nominee, was a surprise winner in the June Democratic Primary. In a three-way race against two liberals, Brian Moran and Terry McAuliffe, he was the moderate alternative. Many voters, including myself, figured that a moderate Democrat from rural Virginia might have a good chance against Bob McDonnell.  Deeds had a self-deprecating, aw shucks manner, a bit of a populist streak, and a good record in the legislature. Unfortunately for the Democrats, Deeds just never got it together.
His campaign, during most of the summer, languished. He wasn’t busy devising a grand strategy for the campaign, he wasn’t pulling together a new staff, and he wasn’t testing out issues to see how they would fly in the fall. The result was that McDonnell built up a handy lead.
Of course, there was the infamous thesis. Bob McDonnell, back in 1989, while getting a Master’s Degree at Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network University, wrote a thesis outlining a proposed pro-family agenda for the GOP. It was old, but Deeds used it to his advantage, and ran ads, mostly in Northern Virginia that skewered McDonnell over his comments on gays, contraception and women in the workforce. Some of Deeds’ commentary, particularly on McDonnell’s record in the legislature, skirted the truth, and this, in some newspaper commentaries, backfired on him. However, in spite of a few inaccuracies, these attacks had the desired effect, and for a while, it narrowed the gap between McDonnell and Deeds. That said, and worthy of note, at no time did the polls show Deeds with a lead.
For a little while it looked like the race, mostly thanks to the thesis flap, might be a horse race, but that prospect seems to have evaporated. This week the Washington Post Poll showed McDonnell with a 9-point lead. Apparently many voters had made up their minds and McDonnell was their choice. The Republican was even doing surprisingly well in Northern Virginia. This is a region of the state that has given Democrats landslide majorities in the past three statewide elections.
Other polls, including the campaign polls, seem to be affirming the Post’s results. The reason isn’t all that hard to figure. Deeds went negative and stayed negative. That’s not always a losing strategy, but the problem was that when voters were asked to identify what Deeds was for, they didn’t know. In 2001, Mark Warner was for straightening out the budget mess in Richmond. In 2005, Tim Kaine was for roads and education. Roads and education are still up for grabs in 2009, and they’re normally good Democratic issues, but Deeds didn’t go after either. Rather, McDonnell did.
The Deeds campaign, entering its final stretch, seems completely lost. Many voters still don’t know quite what he stands for or who he is. Deeds, for his part, in a rather unfortunate interview, blamed some of his standing in the polls on negative reaction to the Obama administration. This may be partially true, but as an explanation for Deeds’ inability to connect with Virginia voters, it’s not much of an excuse.
Campaigns, even ones that seem all but over, can still be volatile. But this campaign doesn’t seem to have any hidden game changers. While Deeds doesn’t seem to have a strategy, McDonnell has stuck to his, and appears ready to ride it all the way to a win on Nov. 3. I guess in a way, this campaign is already over.
You may reach David Kerr at kerr @journalpress.com.

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