Virginia Notebook

Virginia Notebook

By Rosalind S. Helderman and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 18, 2009

You can say this about last week's Democratic primary for governor: The results were not wishy-washy.

After weeks of predictions of a close election among three evenly matched candidates, Virginia voters bucked convention and handed state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (Bath) a clear and convincing victory. With his nomination came some answers to questions posed in this column last week:

1. Did last year's presidential campaign pump up voters for a Virginia election or tire them out?

The State Board of Elections reports that 319,176 Virginians voted last week, 6.44 percent of active registered voters. That was a significant jump over turnout for the 2006 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, when 156,000 voters participated. It's also at the upper end of predictions made by the campaigns as they prepared for the election. Still, given the millions of dollars spent on the race, including significant mass communication through radio and television ads, that's pretty tiny. Tiny not just in comparison to the almost 1 million who voted in last year's presidential primary or the 3.7 million who voted in the November election but tiny in comparison to average primary turnout in other parts of the country.

Although some voters clearly were turned on to politics by the energy of last year's election, plenty of anecdotal evidence suggests a lot of Virginians were not prepared for another big election so soon. When the summer turns to fall, however, Deeds and Republican Robert F. McDonnell clearly hope they'll be ready again.

2. Does a candidate have to hail from Northern Virginia to win?

No. Deeds beat Brian Moran and Terry McAuliffe in every region of the state, including vote-rich Northern Virginia, even though Deeds was the only one of the three not from the state's most populous region. His victory was so dominant that he captured 50 percent of the vote and 10 of 11 congressional districts, including the one held by Moran's brother, U.S. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D).

Deeds, who hails from one of the least populated parts of the state, proved that someone from rural Virginia can not only compete, but win. He did that by talking about statewide issues and about parochial concerns, such as pledging to tackle Northern Virginia's transportation problem during his first year in office.

But Northern Virginia, the state's economic engine and largest population center, remains key because one of every five voters lives in Northern Virginia, and the region's residents made up 36 percent of the electorate in last week's primary. Deeds and McDonnell know that. Deeds is moving his headquarters from Charlottesville to Northern Virginia, most likely the Alexandria area, where he is expected to make a big push, and McDonnell has dubbed himself the Northern Virginia candidate because he grew up there and most of his and his wife's family members live there.

3. Do voters require candidates to have a Virginia record?

It seemed to help, although the fact that former delegate Moran, who had a lengthy one, got fewer votes than former Democratic national chairman McAuliffe, who had none, would suggest it was not determinative. Still, there's lots of talk that if McAuliffe remains interested in the governorship, he could take a lesson from U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.). A businessman, Warner turned to electoral politics after chairing the state's Democratic party and traveling throughout Virginia for years. He, too, lost in his first bid for office, falling in a race for U.S. Senate in 1996 before his successful 2001 run for governor.

Things look bad for McAuliffe today, but if he spent the next four years helping the Virginia party, raising money for local candidates, maybe launching an alternative energy foundation or investing in more Virginia businesses, could he take another stab at the governor's mansion in four years? Stranger things have happened.

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