Can Deeds Keep the Party Going in Virginia?

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Steve Helber / AP

Former Virginia attorney general Robert McDonnell, left, and state senator Robert Creigh Deeds

One candidate is from western Virginia — so far west, in fact, it's closer to Charleston, W. Va., and Greensboro, N.C., than to Washington D.C. — who promotes his rural, pro-gun values and aw-shucks humble persona and is named for his Confederate grandfather. The other moved to the D.C. suburbs at an early age and remains a northern Virginia suburbanite; he's lived abroad and is a BlackBerry junkie, regularly Twittering and posting Facebook updates. Can you guess which one is the Republican and which the Democratic candidate for Virginia governor?

The surprising contrast will form the basis of a race sure to be watched closely for its national political implications. On Tuesday, state senator Robert Creigh Deeds, who goes by Creigh (pronounced Cree), won the Democratic nomination for governor in a surprise landslide. Deeds, who hails from rural Bath County and has a mule named for Harry S Truman that lives next to a house built by his family in the 1700s, trailed third in most polls until the final week. After the Washington Post gave him a surprisingly strong endorsement that stressed his electability, Deeds surged ahead of Democratic fundraiser Terry McAuliffe, Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign manager, and former state representative Brian Moran to sweep 10 of the state's 11 districts. The only candidate who didn't quit his day job as a lawyer to campaign, Deeds raised significantly less money than his rivals — just $3.8 million, compared to McAuliffe's $6.9 million and Moran's $4.8 million. He likely enters the race, if not broke, then certainly far behind in fundraising. (See pictures of 60 years of election-night drama.)

Virginia attorney general Robert McDonnell, by contrast, ran unopposed for the Republican nomination, enabling him to start the general election with $4.9 million on hand. A 21-year Army veteran whose daughter just returned from a tour in Iraq, McDonnell is proudly Catholic and strongly pro-life. He's never far from his BlackBerry, carries an electronic tablet from which he e-mails his staff handwritten notes and has even hired Barack Obama's cellular-texting company to help with his youth outreach. Progressive groups are already trying to paint McDonnell as a right-wing social conservative because of his friendships with Jerry Falwell Jr. and Pat Robertson. But McDonnell has been downplaying social issues, stressing his good working relationship with outgoing governor Tim Kaine, a moderate Democrat who is leaving office because of term limits.

McDonnell also has history on his side — in more ways than one. For almost four decades, whichever party has won the White House has lost the Virginia governor's mansion the following year. And after eight years of Democratic governors, Virginians may be ready for a change. Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat who served as Virginia's governor from 2002 to 2006, was quick to point out, however, that those kinds of records are meant to be broken. "Back in 2001 when I ran, we didn't have a single statewide elected Democrat, and conventional wisdom was that this state was going to become one of the most solid Republican — we had a 2-1 Republican legislature," Warner, standing just off the Senate floor, laughs, noting that the state then elected Kaine, sent Warner and fellow Democrat Jim Webb to the Senate and chose Barack Obama to be President — the first Dem to win the Southern state in 44 years. (See 10 elections that changed America.)

The attorney general has also, as it happens, beaten Deeds once before: they faced off in 2005 in the race for attorney general. Deeds lost by just 323 votes — the closest statewide race in Virginia history — after McDonnell outspent him 2 to 1, a contest that Republicans and Democrats alike have viewed as a positive sign. Though he starts out from behind, Deeds is confident he'll catch up. "Money-wise, we'll be fine," he says in a phone interview. "We're already putting money in the bank. We've got a united party. Terry and his friends will be with me on this journey. Warner and Webb are also powerful proven fundraisers. And Barack Obama has more than just a little bit of interest in this race."

Indeed, within hours of winning the nomination, Deeds was on the phone with the President and the Vice President, who pledged their support and said they would campaign for him. Deeds may need Obama's help, particularly with black voters, whose record turnout helped Obama take the state. The one area Deeds lost (to McAuliffe) was the 3rd congressional district, the most heavily black district in the state, made up of parts of Norfolk and Hampton.

While Deeds has the backing of some heavy hitters in Virginia and national politics — Warner, Webb, Kaine, Obama — McDonnell is bereft of virtually any influential surrogates. "The national and state GOP is of little help to him, except financially, because they have no major figure that is popular in Virginia and can actually move votes toward McDonnell," says Larry Sabato, a professor of political science at the University of Virginia. "Newt Gingrich? Dick Cheney? Rush Limbaugh? John McCain? George W. Bush? [Former Senator] George Allen? [Former Governor] Jim Gilmore? Get real." No wonder that during the primaries, McDonnell brought in Sarah Palin, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rudy Giuliani to campaign on his behalf — surrogates designed to keep his name in the news as the Dem slugfest dominated local headlines. (See 10 things that had never happened in a campaign before.)

Deeds does emerge from a tough primary a little scarred. Both McAuliffe and his other opponent, Brian Moran, beat Deeds up for voting for a 30-cent gas-tax increase when gas was more than $4 a gallon, something not lost on McDonnell's campaign. "The contrast is going to be striking. Creigh Deeds has a record of supporting higher taxes, bigger government and higher spending," says Tucker Martin, a McDonnell spokesman, pointing to the gas-tax vote and Deeds' vote against eliminating the state estate tax. Another big issue will surely be Obama's stimulus package: Deeds backed it, but McDonnell called for Virginia to reject some funds that would, in his view, create a new entitlement program for part-time and underemployed workers.

"It is a tough climb for the Democrats this year," says Mark Rozell, a political-science professor at George Mason University in McDonnell's hometown of Fairfax. "But leaving aside the national trends and factors that affect the race, Deeds is the kind of centrist Democrat that has done well in Virginia statewide elections recently. If he can capture a little bit of the Warner-Webb-Kaine magic, it could be a very competitive race after all."

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