There's a Hot Race in Va., but Will Voters Show?

By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A t the past three campaign events I've gone to, I've heard the same opposing views from Virginians contemplating the June 9 Democratic primary: "It's only governor, so I don't think I need to vote" runs slam into "I'm tired of politics after last year, but this is for governor, so I guess I better get out there and vote."

In the battle to face Republican Bob McDonnell in November, the three Democrats desperately trying to win Virginians' attention agree that the outcome will be determined by who bothers to vote. In 2005 and 2006, the last two times that primaries for statewide office were held, fewer than 4 percent of voters made it to the polls.

Yet this primary will probably determine who is Virginia's next governor. Not because the Democrat is destined to win in November (history favors the party opposite the one that controls the White House), but because the three Democrats line up very differently against McDonnell, the state attorney general until earlier this year.

McDonnell, a social and fiscal conservative who grew up in Fairfax, is a graduate of the Rev. Pat Robertson's Regent University law school and recipient of more campaign dollars from Robertson than any other politician. He is nonetheless presenting himself as a moderate. His TV ads make no mention of his party. The social agenda that played an important role in his legislative career is now secondary to easing transportation woes and getting Virginians back to work.

McDonnell is smart, telegenic and anything but harsh. To beat him, Democrats must figure out how to replicate the formula that put Mark Warner and Tim Kaine in the governor's house: an appeal first to Northern Virginia liberals and moderates who want top-quality schools and health systems and better roads and transit, and then to more conservative downstaters who are put off by the Republicans' just-say-no mentality but are anxious about Democrats who forget to turn off the tax spigot.

Terry McAuliffe's advantages are obvious: Money buys awareness, and McAuliffe's big personality would assure that the fall race would be about him, something both sides say they relish. McAuliffe, best known as Bill Clinton's longtime chief fundraiser, is supremely confident that his story -- a speedy rise to status as a legendary power broker -- will persuade voters that he is a born executive. McDonnell, in contrast, is eager to portray McAuliffe as a symbol of everything that's wrong with politics -- a glib, slick operator who's all about money and power, rather than people and their problems.

McAuliffe's route to victory depends on bringing out people who don't ordinarily pay close attention to Virginia politics but who were energized by last fall's presidential race and want to keep pressing for change. He's paying especially close attention to bringing back black voters who generally turn out in weak numbers in state primaries.

He needs people who often stay home, because he's assuming that the winner among politically involved voters will be Brian Moran, the longtime state delegate from Alexandria.

Moran is the Bob Dole of this race: a well-liked, good-natured, smart insider who was the presumptive nominee until Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton last year, demolishing McAuliffe's path back to the White House. Moran has run a curiously flat campaign. He's not as dynamic a speaker as his opponents, and although he's raised a lot of money, he seems to be husbanding it for a big emphasis on his home turf and other urban centers. Moran is targeting those most likely to vote -- party regulars, inside-the-Beltway liberals who like his positions on the environment (he's the only one of the three who argues that coal can't be made clean) and gays (he's the only one of the three who supports gay marriage). But could Moran put himself in dire trouble if he wins the nomination by steering left?

The third candidate, state Sen. Creigh Deeds, is the wild card, the only Democrat from outside the Beltway, the only one with rural roots, the one most at ease in a world where easy access to guns, the death penalty and opposition to gay marriage are matters of course. Deeds is not giving up on Northern Virginia but hopes to benefit if liberal voters there render themselves meaningless by splitting between McAuliffe and Moran.

So who will vote? If TV advertising determined turnout, McAuliffe would waltz to a win. But you need look back only one decade -- to the GOP race for attorney general in 1997 -- to find a Virginia primary in which the only candidate who was not on TV ended up the victor.

The beauty of this primary is that despite the torrent of money, despite the yammering on national talk shows desperate for political topics in a year in which only Virginia and New Jersey have elections, no one knows who will come out. Amazingly, more than 90 percent of Virginians are likely to leave this choice to someone else. Those few voters get to deliver the surprise.


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