Deeds's Va. Victory Renews McDonnell Rivalry — With a Difference

Robert F. McDonnell, the GOP nominee for governor, was elected attorney general by 360 votes in 2005.
Robert F. McDonnell, the GOP nominee for governor, was elected attorney general by 360 votes in 2005. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
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By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 11, 2009

Days before Christmas 2005, Democrat R. Creigh Deeds was declared the loser in the race for state attorney general. To his supporters, the outcome of the closest statewide contest in modern Virginia history was only a temporary setback.

When Deeds walked into the holiday cocktail party where he gave a concession statement, he was greeted by hastily penned signs that had been stuck amid the festive decorations: "Deeds is Mine in 2009" and "Creigh Deeds, Governor."

"That night was the beginning of the gubernatorial campaign," Lawrence H. Framme III, the host and former chairman of the Virginia Democratic Party, recalled yesterday. "We said, 'You need to be our nominee, and we all support you.' "

On Tuesday, Deeds's come-from-behind win in the Democratic gubernatorial primary brought the state senator from rural Bath County a step closer to the governor's mansion. Now he will face off a second time against the man who bested him by 360 votes in 2005: Republican nominee Robert F. McDonnell.

"I was remembering how incredibly close it was, just on the margins," said Mark Rozell, a George Mason University public policy professor, recalling the 2005 vote. "The interesting question is: Does that race foretell anything about this election year? The answer? Possibly. These candidates know how to run against each other."

The rematch between the former prosecutors will have a different dynamic. In 2005, they largely agreed on public safety reforms, including efforts to strengthen punishments for sex offenders, but disagreed on some social issues. For example, McDonnell was a leader in the antiabortion movement, and Deeds said abortion should remain legal.

Public attention on the gubernatorial campaign will be much more intense, and the range of issues broader. They will spar over the economy, education and transportation.

"The issue in the race for attorney general was really about public safety," said Phil Cox, McDonnell's campaign manager this year. "The race for governor is about who has the best vision to create jobs and get the economy going again."

The 2005 attorney general race was largely overshadowed by the gubernatorial contest between Democrat Timothy M. Kaine and Republican Jerry W. Kilgore. But the Deeds-McDonnell matchup captured a lot more attention after it became clear on election night that the result was too close to call. A recount decided the race on Dec. 21.

During that campaign, Deeds and McDonnell took a few swipes at each other. A McDonnell ad contended that Deeds had been lenient in his handling of some child abuse cases as a local prosecutor. Deeds countered with an ad that told viewers about McDonnell's connections to religious broadcaster Pat Robertson.

Deeds's support of gun rights -- he once sponsored a state constitutional amendment to protect the right to hunt and fish -- caused some unusual political dynamics in 2005.

He was endorsed by the National Rifle Association, making him the only Democrat running statewide to receive NRA backing since 1989. But former governor L. Douglas Wilder (D) refused to back Deeds, citing the state senator's opposition to legislation limiting Virginians to one handgun purchase a month. Lack of support from the nation's first elected African American governor probably cost Deeds crucial votes, analysts say.

Cameron Quinn, a McDonnell supporter who worked on the recount, said the rematch won't be a replay. "Both of them, I think, are going to be looking forward," Quinn said. "A lot of what they talked about in 2005 is not going to be all that relevant to what they are going to do as candidates for governor."

Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.

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