How Moran's Early Strength Turned Into Loss in Virginia Primary for Governor

Brian Moran lost in most of his Northern Virginia base.
Brian Moran lost in most of his Northern Virginia base. (Kevin Clark - The Washington Post)
By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 11, 2009

Former Alexandria delegate Brian Moran had everything he needed for a strong bid for Virginia governor: a moderate legislative record, a law-and-order background, a popular name in Northern Virginia -- and a well-earned reputation as a nice guy.

But something happened.

Moran, 49, the former House Democratic Caucus chairman, the younger brother of U.S. Rep. James P. Moran Jr., the former Arlington County prosecutor who was considered the front-runner a year ago for the Democratic nomination for governor, collapsed. Coming in third in Tuesday's primary against winner R. Creigh Deeds, the state senator from Bath County, and Terry McAuliffe of McLean, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Moran lost everywhere he was supposed to win, and he lost big. Friends, supporters and political observers are wondering why.

"A year ago . . . Brian was excellent," recalled state Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax), who supported Deeds in the primary but considers the Moran brothers friends. "I would have thought that he had it locked up. He was out around the state. He was impressing people in various communities. And Creigh had already lost to Bob McDonnell.

"But then," Howell added, "Brian completely failed to capitalize on any of it."

Howell and others said a series of events led to Moran's loss. First was McAuliffe's decision to get into the race last fall, a moment that many say rattled Moran so deeply that he never recovered. Thinking he had to keep up with McAuliffe's fundraising ability, Moran quit the House of Delegates because state law bans legislators from raising cash while the House is in session. He mapped out a strategy aimed almost entirely at discrediting McAuliffe with negative advertising on radio and television.

And he tacked to the left, emphasizing such issues as repealing the state's ban on same-sex marriage. He spent less time on the moderate, bread-and-butter issues such as fiscal conservatism and fixing the state's clogged roads -- issues that had been the hallmark of virtually every successful Democrat in Virginia this decade.

"It has a lot to do with Terry McAuliffe getting in that race," said Linda T. "Toddy" Puller of southern Fairfax County, another Democratic state senator who is close to Moran but got behind Deeds the day before the election. "That's when his campaign started changing. It no longer was about Brian. It was about Terry."

Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia, agreed that Moran's campaign changed for the worse after McAuliffe's entrance into the race. But he said he also thinks Moran showed a weakness on the trail before then that prompted McAuliffe to run.

"He had two years to lock down the nomination, and he squandered them," Sabato said. "I heard people for years say, 'Brian is a nice guy, but he's a flat campaigner, and there's just no energy there.' For whatever reason, he did not connect. Had he impressed people in the two years prior to the race, McAuliffe never would have had an opening."

Sabato said the decision to leave the House robbed Moran of a bully pulpit and media attention. And his decision to tack left ignored the fact that many of Virginia's most liberal voters, in communities such as Arlington County and Alexandria, are also among the state's most educated. Those voters wanted to pick the candidate who could beat Republican Robert F. McDonnell in the fall, he said.

Lori Farrow, 43, a stay-at-home mom from Leesburg, voted for McAuliffe because she feared Moran didn't have the statewide name recognition needed to win in November.

"I really like Brian Moran," Farrow said. "He was really good to all of us in Northern Virginia, and I always felt that he was out there trying to work for us, trying to get us our fair share."

Chris Zimmerman (D), a member of the Arlington County Board and a strong Moran supporter, dismissed much of the postmortem criticism because "when you lose a game, everything you did was wrong, right?" He said Moran had no choice but to change his campaign because of McAuliffe, who spent about $7.5 million during the six-month primary.

"Head-to-head, Brian would have won this race against either of these opponents," Zimmerman said. "The fact of the matter is, when you get into a slugfest, and there's a third candidate, the third candidate benefits. And that's exactly what happened."

Moran declined an interview, but spokesman Jesse Ferguson said Moran's positions never changed on the marriage amendment, on offshore drilling or on building a coal-fired power plant in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

"There is nobody who has fought harder on equality issues than Brian," Ferguson said. "And he's been fighting against offshore drilling since the early part of the decade."

Still, it's hard to argue that something dramatic didn't happen when studying Tuesday's numbers. Moran lost every community in Northern Virginia except Alexandria, his home town. He lost Arlington, arguably Virginia's most liberal county and long viewed as a Moran stronghold. He lost the 8th Congressional District, which his brother represents.

"He did not connect," Sabato said. "He's subdued compared to his brother. Very pleasant, nice guy -- I think everybody likes him. But when you're voting for a governor, you look for someone who clearly has leadership abilities, and they just didn't come across."

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