Trying to make sense of the ’09 Dem governor’s race

The race for the Democratic Party nomination to run for governor has come to look an awful lot like the race for the Dem nomination to run for the White House that resulted in Barack Obama’s historic victory in November.
It started early – when Valley native son Creigh Deeds declared his candidacy for the nomination in December 2007, almost two full years before the general election. And it certainly has its star power – with Clinton confidante and former Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe now aiming to seize the frontrunner role.

And then there’s the part to the race where the Republicans have settled on a nominee – in this case Attorney General Bob McDonnell, who didn’t need a Super Tuesday but rather a firm handshake to shore up the GOP nomination and smooth sailing into the fall.

The key difference – the stretch run in the Democratic Party race in Virginia in ’09 will be a three-way dance with Deeds, McAuliffe and former Northern Virginia legislator Brian Moran splitting hairs and splitting votes heading into the June party primary.

The momentum right now seems to be with McAuliffe, an interesting parallel to the ’08 Democratic race in that it was Hillary Clinton, who had McAuliffe as her campaign chair, who was the odds-on favorite to get the presidential nomination at the outset of things.

“There is no doubt that McAuliffe will be the largest target in the race,” Virginia Commonwealth University political-science professor Bob Holsworth wrote on his blog last week after sitting with McAuliffe to talk about his entree into the Democratic Party gubernatorial race.

The bullseye on McAuliffe begins with his reputation as a big-time fundraiser that comes from his successful reversal of fortune for the DNC during his tenure there. McAuliffe is doing his part to tamp down expectations to that end.

“People win elections because they have big ideas. Plain and simple. I’ve known a lot of candidates with a lot of money. It’s not about money,” McAuliffe told reporters after an event in Harrisonburg last week during his campaign kickoff tour.

“Everybody in the race is going to be able to raise the money they need to get their message out,” McAuliffe said. “I’m keeping my eye focused on Bob McDonnell, and I’m going to make sure that we have the resources to compete. The Republican National Committee and the state party has said they’re throwing the kitchen sink into this race. I’ll have the resources to do it. Brian Moran can do whatever he wants with his campaign, Creigh Deeds can do what they want with their own campaign. I’m going to run my campaign, and I’m going to run it on ideas, big policy initiatives. I’ll have the resources, and I assume they will, too.”

Holsworth sounded a similar message in his assessment of the McAuliffe candidacy. “Almost every conversation and all the media reports about McAuliffe have focused on the money that he can bring to the race. To an extent, this has been generated by McAuliffe’s background as a fundraiser for the Clintons and the national Democratic Party. And it has been abetted by some of McAuliffe’s own conversations with local officials in his pre-announcement listening tour around the state,” Holsworth wrote.

“The 2009 gubernatorial race will break all fundraising and campaign expenditure records ever set in Virginia. But money is not the reason that the race promises to be so interesting. And, as hard as this may be to believe, it is unlikely to be the most distinctive feature of McAuliffe’s candidacy,” Holsworth wrote, citing McAuliffe’s mantra of “big ideas” referenced above as his stamp, if you will, on the ’09 race.

I can easily see the ’09 primary becoming in effect a referendum on McAuliffe – big ideas, big money, big whatever – in much the same way that Hillary Clinton tried to make the ’08 Democratic race and later John McCain tried to make the ’08 general election a referendum on Barack Obama. If I’m strategizing for Deeds and Moran, I raise the issue of McAuliffe’s Johnny Come Lately arrival into state politics early and often, and Moran, anyway, seems to be at least testing out that course, throwing down a challenge a couple of weeks back to his fellow candidates thinly veiled as a dig at McAuliffe to raise their campaign money from in-state donors.

“This election should be about who has a proven record of fighting for Virginia families and a vision for where to take the state,” Moran said. “It should not be an election about who can raise more money from national donors. Virginia Democrats should choose our nominee.”

Deeds, for his part, is trying to stay above the fray. I met with Deeds just before Christmas and asked him about the entree of McAuliffe into the race and the move by Moran last month to resign his House of Delegates seat to focus his energies full-time on the nomination campaign. His message – “I’m still doing the same things I was going to do.”

“There are some folks who will run for office who will be governed by what the other guys do. I’m not going to do that. Virginia needs steady leadership, and I’m going to be steady about the way I run this campaign. I’m going to continue to talk to Virginia voters about the issues that I think matter to them, and I don’t think you’ve seen any shift in what I’ve been talking about or who I’ve been talking to, regardless of who else is out there,” Deeds said.

Of note here is that McAuliffe, the bullseye, is taking that same above-the-fray approach. “I promise you this. I’ve never done it, and I’m not going to start now. I have never attacked a Democrat in my life, and I’m not going to say a bad word about either one of my opponents, and I would never do that. I’m going to save my criticisms for Bob McDonnell,” McAuliffe said. “Bob McDonnell, as you know, has spent the last seven years trying to undermine the work of Tim Kaine and Mark Warner. If you remember, it was Bob McDonnell who said no to Mark Warner on budget reform, said no to Tim Kaine on transportation reform. Bob McDonnell has pushed through an ideological agenda that’s divided Virginia. It’s not united us. And that in the general election is going to be a big argument for us, and that’s what I’m going to focus on. I’m going to focus on Bob McDonnell. I don’t think people want his kind of leadership. They want a different way. We learned that in the last presidential election,” McAuliffe said.

I know McAuliffe and Deeds are doing essentially the same thing here, but I’m thinking different thoughts about how the strategy will work for them individually. For McAuliffe, he might risk creating that aura of inevitability that ended up befalling Howard Dean in ’04 and then Clinton in ’08 when more aggressive opponents basically outworked the more cautious frontrunners to the nominations. But for Deeds, the outsider in this race with two Northern Virginians dominating the headlines right now, I don’t know how to explain it, but there’s a feeling there for me that he could more easily tap into the changing-politics-as-usual theme that Obama rode to victory in the spring and then again in November.

“I think his best strategy is to let Moran and McAuliffe duke it out with each other and let them divide as much as they will the same side of the party,” Christopher Newport University political-science professor Quentin Kidd told me during a chat that we had for a podcast that aired on the AFP last week.

“Let those two guys fight it out with each other. I’ll go to the General Assembly in a tough session, and I’ll try to get accomplished what I can get accomplished, and then I’ll come out of that session, and I’ll rise above whatever politics or petty partisanship the other two have become engaged in, and I’ll start talking about real solutions and about steady leadership and about somebody who’s ready to stay in office because that’s what I was elected to,” Kidd said.

“That’s really the only thing Deeds can do, because in the end he’s going to raise the least amount of money. But he can be the last one standing if Brian Moran and Terry McAuliffe end up splitting a vote that one or the other of them needs totally in order to beat Creigh Deeds,” Kidd said.

Note how I’m not offering any predictions on how this is going to turn out. Methinks it’s way, way too early to be thinking along those lines. A lot has to play out before we can get a sense as to where this race is going to go between now and June.

 

– Story by Chris Graham


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