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The Wilder Factor - Will it make or break the Dems’ chances?

Former Governor Doug Wilder is, to apply an overused term, an original. He is a Democrat. He was elected a state senator, lieutenant governor and governor as a Democrat. And yet, throughout his long and accomplished career, he has often been at odds with his own party. This year he has done it again. The former governor, the first African American elected to the job, has once again bucked the Democratic Party and chosen not to endorse a candidate for governor. What’s more, he did so in a very public way.
Of course, this isn’t the first time Doug Wilder has played this game. In fact, it started as far back as 1982. That year, with the retirement of Harry F. Byrd Jr., a U.S. Senate seat was coming open and Chuck Robb, along with other prominent Democrats, were supporting Delegate Owen Pickett as their candidate. Doug Wilder was incensed. No one knows quite why exactly, but it didn’t matter, then-State Senator Wilder said he would run as an independent if Pickett were the Democratic nominee. That was all it took. Shortly after that Pickett withdrew his candidacy.

 

 

Wilder’s election to the governor’s mansion in 1989 was history-making. However, it’s the years following his term as Governor that have caused the Democratic Party the most trouble. In 1993, then outgoing Governor Wilder refused to endorse the Democratic candidate for governor, Attorney General Mary Sue Terry. Breaking the Democratic Party’s three-term winning streak, Terry lost to George Allen. Four years later, in 1997, Wilder did the same thing and refused to endorse Don Beyer. Beyer lost that one to Jim Gilmore. In 2001, almost reluctantly, he endorsed Mark Warner. Warner won. Wilder supported Tim Kaine in 2005, and the Democrats took that one as well.
Wilder’s impact on these elections is subject to debate. But as the first African American elected a governor of a Southern state, his views carry a certain weight. And the reason is surprisingly simple. For a Democrat to win in Virginia, it is essential that they carry an overwhelming percentage of the African American vote. Most successful Democratic candidates have received in excess of 90 percent. Often the numbers are even higher than that. That means that anything that limits the turnout, or prompts African Americans to support the Republican, is bad news for the Democrats.
Unfortunately for the Democrats, Wilder has never been a Creigh Deeds fan. In 2005, when Deeds was running for attorney general against Bob McDonnell (yes, same guy he is running against now), Wilder declined to endorse the Democrat. Since it was a “down ticket” race, just how much impact Wilder had on the outcome is hard to tell, but Deeds nonetheless lost that one by a narrow margin. This year Wilder has two reasons for not endorsing Deeds. The first was his vote in the Legislature, years ago, against Wilder’s one gun a month bill. The second is Wilder’s complaint that Deeds would increase taxes. He called this “irresponsible.” This is harsh stuff coming from a fellow Democrat.
While Wilder’s comments were unusually sharp, it’s highly unlikely that he will endorse a Republican. He never has. He seems to know just how far he can go. However this year, more so than in the past, his “non-endorsement” gave the Republicans more fodder than he has provided in the past.
The Deeds campaign seems to be taking this all in stride. In a sense, in their carefully worded response, they tipped their hat in the former governor’s direction and acknowledged that he was entitled to his point of view. Besides, it’s doubtful Deeds even expected a Wilder endorsement. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t hoping for one. In fact the entire Democratic establishment was hoping the former governor could be brought around. Even President Obama weighed in. And so did Governor Kaine. But neither had any luck in changing Wilder’s point of view.
At this point, the Democrats are hoping that maybe their campaign is gaining ground, as it seems to be, and that perhaps the Wilder factor, once so important, may not matter that much anymore. However, given the history of the Wilder Factor, it’s a lot to hope for.
You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

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