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Race to Richmond

2009 election for Virginia governor | Latest News | Daily Roundup | Candidate Tracker

Major Front in Va. Race Is Online

Democratic gubernatorial contenders Terry McAuliffe, left, Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, center, and former delegate Brian Moran, at the first official debate, held in Hampton, Va. The men offered similar plans for improving education.
Democratic gubernatorial contenders Terry McAuliffe, left, Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, center, and former delegate Brian Moran, at the first official debate, held in Hampton, Va. The men offered similar plans for improving education. (By Steve Helber -- Associated Press)

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By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Terry McAuliffe's YouTube channel uploaded three new videos in the past week. Brian Moran has aggressively courted backing from a coterie of liberal bloggers in Northern Virginia. A Twitter addict, R. Creigh Deeds regularly fires off tweets from his BlackBerry.

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The feverish online activity isn't limited to Democrats, who meet tonight in a debate co-sponsored by the news sites Huffington Post and Collegiate Times and the blogs Fire Dog Lake and Not Larry Sabato. Robert F. McDonnell, the lone Republican in the Virginia governor's race, has been all but inescapable online. Not only does his official Facebook page list more supporters than Deeds and Moran combined, but he also has been advertising on local and national conservative sites.

"In all the years that I've been watching Virginia politics, I've never seen this kind of action online -- and not just from voters but from candidates," said Jerome Armstrong, an Alexandria resident who in 2001 created MyDD, one of the country's earliest political blogs. He is advising Moran. "The biggest lesson learned from the past two years is that when it comes to Internet strategy, you have to cover all your bases."

The 2008 presidential race served as an incubator for a new generation of campaign technology that played a crucial role in raising money, marketing candidates and mobilizing grass-roots support. Now statewide candidates are seeking to capitalize on the advances, with varying degrees of success.

Last week, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom announced his bid for California governor via Twitter, Facebook and YouTube -- a multi-platform tactic that was described by the folks at Tech President, which covers the intersection of politics and technology, as a "21st-century version of by land, air or sea."

But with the Virginia Democratic primary just a few weeks away, that state's gubernatorial contest offers the most significant early test of the broad mainstream impact of the Internet and new technologies on campaigning. And the four candidates have spent thousands of dollars in online advertising, hired top-flight Internet consultants and built elaborate Web sites.

All are using Google Ad Words, buying the right to give prominent display to their sites when people type the candidates' names, their opponents' names and other notable phrases ("Virginia jobs," "green jobs," etc.) into the company's search engine. In recent weeks, Virginia residents who type the keywords "Virginia employment" on Google are led to an online ad for McDonnell.

McDonnell has also been the target of online ads. Common Sense Virginia, a group backed by Democratic organizations, recently launched TheRealBobMcDonnell.com, a site whose home page is a mock of McDonnell's official site and shows the mug of the former state attorney general alongside those of former president George W. Bush, radio host Rush Limbaugh and religious broadcaster Pat Robertson. The group is heavily advertising on female-oriented sites.

"Individual campaigns and issue groups started advertising early," said Peter Greenberger, Google's director of election and issue advocacy. "At this comparable stage of the 2008 campaign, we did not see this kind of adoption by the presidential candidates."

But the online investments have not yielded spectacular numbers for everyone, particularly when it comes to online fundraising. McDonnell has raised $2.2 million this year, with roughly $75,000 coming in online.

"The Internet is not just all about raising money, though," said McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin. "It's about collecting e-mails and cellphone numbers and building a list of supporters."

By contrast, about 14 percent of Moran's total donations ($123,000 of $870,000) came from online contributors. For Deeds, it's more than 20 percent of the total ($168,000 of $723,000). McAuliffe, the most prodigious fundraiser of the bunch, would not disclose how much of the $4.2 million he has raised this year arrived online.


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