Virginia's Intriguing Democratic Field for Governor

Monday, March 16, 2009

"IT'S GREAT to be with you all tonight here in Tallahassee," joked Terry McAuliffe at the Virginia Capitol Correspondents Association's annual dinner in Richmond last month. "Come on, folks, you know I'm kidding. I love running for governor of New York." The room of reporters crackled with laughter as Mr. McAuliffe parodied his rumored runs for governor in Florida and New York. Yet, the joke unintentionally touched on a serious question, one key to the Democratic primary for governor in Virginia. Can an unapologetic partisan who has had only a passing interest in Richmond politics effectively govern a tradition-steeped state that is still more purple than blue?

That's the issue that Mr. McAuliffe's opponents, both Richmond veterans, are sure to press as the June 9 primary approaches. Three qualified candidates, Mr. McAuliffe, former delegate Brian Moran of Alexandria and state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds of Bath County, are vying for the Democratic nod, the first time since 1977 that there's been a seriously contested primary field. The winner will face former attorney general Robert F. McDonnell, a savvy campaigner who isn't as doctrinaire as some recent statewide GOP candidates. The election is sure to be the centerpiece of the political season: Democrats want badly to build on President Obama's historic sweep of the state; Republicans are anxious to stanch their recent electoral losses.

Mr. Moran, a prosecutor who served in the House for 12 years, was the presumed front-runner until Mr. McAuliffe entered the race. In Richmond, Democrats admired Mr. Moran for his advocacy of progressive issues; Republicans respected his legislative savvy. On the campaign trail, Mr. Moran is emphasizing his dedication to the environment, including his opposition to a coal-fired power plant in Surry County -- a position that somewhat contradicts his past support of a similar plant in Wise County.

Mr. Deeds, the only Virginia native in the race, is as unassuming as the rural Virginia county he represents. In his 17 years in Richmond, Mr. Deeds has amassed a record strong on support for gun rights -- he's a favorite of the National Rifle Association -- but hasn't shied from the occasional progressive stand, opposing a ban on same-sex marriage, for example. Mr. Deeds has a lower profile than his rivals and is likely to raise less cash. Still, the candidate's supporters believe he can swipe the nomination if Mr. McAuliffe and Mr. Moran split the vote in Northern Virginia.

Mr. McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman and a Clinton confidant, sold neighbors on his driveway maintenance business as a youth in Syracuse, N.Y., and donors on candidates from Jimmy Carter to Hillary Rodham Clinton as an adult. But this might be his toughest sales job yet. He must convince Virginians that a businessman with exactly zero years' experience in Richmond can navigate the stratified General Assembly, solve transportation gridlock and generate jobs. It's possible to imagine Mr. McAuliffe persuading businesses to locate in the state or lawmakers to support his legislation. But he must prove that he can also handle the day-to-day challenges of the job.

Virginians have a habit of electing a governor from the opposite party of whoever resides in the White House. With a formidable Republican candidate looming, that's a trend that's going to be difficult for Democrats to reverse, no matter who emerges from the primary.

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