- Last Updated on Monday, 21 September 2009 14:51
- Published on Monday, 21 September 2009 14:51
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Virginia, it can be argued, by virtue of having its state elections in off years, diffuses the impact of national politics. This was certainly the case in times past, and as recently as 30 years ago, but in the 21st century, where the buzz of national politics never quite stops it’s not necessarily true anymore. This year’s campaigns for governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general, while by no means national races, are nonetheless profoundly affected by national politics.
This was certainly the case in 2005. That was the year Tim Kaine beat Jerry Kilgore. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and as public frustration with the war in Iraq was growing, the tide of the governor’s race, which had favored the Republicans well into the fall, shifted to Democrat Tim Kaine. GOP fatigue and angst over George Bush gave the Democrat a significant boost. Tim Kaine won handily.
This year, however, is playing out differently. In 2009, it’s Democrat Creigh Deeds who is dealing with the burden of his party being in power in Washington. Of course, sometimes this is an asset. A popular president can always help. But with President Obama generating so much controversy over health care, cap and trade (a big issue in the coal fields), and the deficit, the Obama administration doesn’t offer much in the way of coattails. Virginians, even those who might normally vote Democratic, might, in a statewide election, support a Republican. That’s what Bob McDonnell is hoping will happen.
The McDonnell strategy has been surprisingly simple. He is staying away from the hot button social issues and focusing on the economy, small business, and most importantly, jobs. This is a message that resonates in just about every region of the state. While Virginia’s jobless rate is low by comparison to the rest of the country, it’s still a major source of anxiety. While most people have a job, just about everyone can readily name someone they know who has lost theirs. This, as Harry Truman once quipped, was the classic definition of a recession.
Creigh Deeds, for his part, watching his opponent build up a sizable lead, has been looking for something to knock McDonnell off balance. But so far, try as he will, he hasn’t found that magic issue. This is what the political types call, the “wedge issue.” McDonnell’s master’s thesis, while provocative enough, hasn’t hit the mark, and the same is true for Deed’s attempt to turn abortion into a wedge issue. In a normal year, these might be powerful concerns, but they simply don’t represent the major worries of Virginia voters in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the 1930s.
Even then, some Democrats are hoping they might be able to recreate the election of 2008. Virginia gave Obama 53 percent of the vote. But that was in a frenzy of excitement that has, for the most part, passed. The Democrats were also facing an inept Republican campaign, which is certainly not the case this year. What’s more, while there is still a lot of good will toward the president, it’s not necessarily transferable. Creigh Deeds hasn’t made the inroad with the black community he hoped, and the massive minority vote that helped Obama in 2008 isn’t going to be there for Deeds. Doug Wilder, still an important figure with minority voters, has chosen not to endorse either candidate for governor. This is bad news for the Democrats.
However, Deeds’ campaign is by no means done. The campaign season has just begun and Deeds has plenty of money to spread his message. Perhaps the best thing Deeds can do to rescue his campaign is do what Virginia Democrats had in years past turned into an art. And that’s run as Democrats, while at the same time casting themselves as being of a different mold than the national party. Chuck Robb, Jerry Baliles and Mark Warner are classic examples. However, Deeds hasn’t, at least to this point, been successful at staking out his own ground, let alone separating himself from the national party. While likable and personable, if Virginians are asked what he stands for, most can’t tell you. And much of this is because it hasn’t been a part of the Deeds’ message.
The Democrats in 2009 are at risk of falling under the tide of a backlash to the party in power in Washington. If Deeds is to counter this traditional reaction, he is going to have to give the voters a reason to vote for him. Unfortunately, so far, he hasn’t been that successful at making a case for his candidacy and while he has a little time left, the clock is ticking.