Virginia governor's race: how Obama may figure in it

A pattern that has held in the Old Dominion since 1977 appears set to repeat: The party that won the White House the year before loses the Virginia governor’s race.

By , Staff writer

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    Republican Bob McDonnell, right at podium, and Democrat Creigh Deeds, left at podium, take part in the final gubernatorial debate at the Olin Theatre on Roanoke College campus in Salem, Va., Tuesday.
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Of the three significant elections on tap for next Tuesday, only one – the Virginia governor’s race – seems locked up. The New Jersey governor’s race and the special House election in New York’s 23rd District are too close to call.

But in the Old Dominion, a pattern that has held since 1977 appears set to repeat: The party that won the White House the year before loses the Virginia governor’s race. A year ago, Democrat Barack Obama won the presidency, and now Republican former state Attorney General Bob McDonnell looks unbeatable as the commonwealth’s next governor, with double-digit leads in the polls.

At this point, Virginia’s “presidential jinx” is looking more and more like something the two parties can take to the bank. Or is it? If a stronger Democrat than state Sen. Creigh Deeds had emerged form the nomination process, he could have had a chance, some say. But no such golden candidate springs to mind.

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Defenders of Mr. Deeds note that he won the nomination in a competitive primary. A country lawyer from rural Bath County with a halting way of speaking, Deeds was seen as the candidate most able to win statewide in red areas as well as blue.

But since the primary, he has been widely criticized for running a weak campaign. For much of the summer and fall, he pounded hard on Mr. McDonnell for a master’s thesis he wrote 20 years ago revealing ultraconservative views toward women.

“Stressing the thesis is legitimate,” says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. “But you also have to provide a positive case for yourself.”

In the final weeks of the campaign, Deeds sharpened his message and won a strong endorsement from The Washington Post. But it’s looking as if Deeds will do nowhere near as well as he did against McDonnell in 2005, when the two vied to become attorney general. Deeds lost by just 323 votes.

So larger forces may indeed be at play now. Mr. Obama is far less popular than he was at the start of his term, and unemployment has gone up. Deeds held the president at arm’s length for much of the race, though he has welcomed visits in the closing weeks of the campaign. That push-me-pull-you effect – plus private grousing from inside the White House that Deeds has run a weak campaign – has blunted the positive impact that Obama could have had.

For Deeds to have a chance, he needs the young, minority, and suburban voters who turned out in droves for Obama to come out for him on Tuesday.

Polls indicate those groups are far less motivated than they were a year ago.

There’s also a political fact of life that can be hard to overcome: The “out party” is often more motivated. And many activists who pulled out all the stops to win the presidential race a year ago are burned out.

In Virginia last year, the effort was particularly intense. Obama won the state by seven percentage points, putting Virginia in the Democratic column for the first time since 1964.

Now, it’s the Republicans who are fighting extra hard.

“The difficulty is, so many doorbells were rung, so many people were called four and five times that people are saying, ‘I’m just not going to do that again,’ " says a Washington, D.C., Democrat who volunteered for Obama in Virginia last year but is sitting out the governor’s race.

The Republicans don’t feel that way,” adds this woman, who does not want her name published. “They’re flooding Virginia from all over the country.”

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New York’s House race

The three-way race to fill New York’s 23rd congressional district seat – pitting a Republican, a Democrat, and a Conservative against one another – is too close to call. Click here to read more.

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