By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 6, 2009
One thing about "Deeds Country," as the swath of rural Virginia extending through the Shenandoah Valley and down into the southwest where state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds has been touring this week has been dubbed by his campaign: It apparently isn't Obama Country.
Outside stops in the more urban settings of Charlottesville, Danville and Blacksburg, many of the 20 visits Deeds (D-Bath) is making on a nine-day campaign swing that begun Sunday are in places where President Obama was beaten handily by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Appomattox, Hillsville, Tazewell, Floyd. All are areas where Obama did not break 35 percent of the vote.
Obama's victory in Virginia came because he won big in the state's suburban areas, particularly in Northern Virginia, where thousands of new and energized voters joined the rolls in the months leading up to November's election and then cast ballots for the Democrat.
That mirrored other recent successful Democratic strategies, including those of Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and Sen. James Webb, who both used sophisticated mathematical modeling to devise winning strategies rooted in the suburbs.
So a big summer push through the state's rural west -- instead of the developments, community pools and shopping malls of Virginia's densely populated regions -- has some progressives nervous about their candidate's strategy.
When Deeds unveiled a campaign video to accompany the tour featuring him driving around his rural Bath County home in a pickup, blogger Ben Tribbett responded on Twitter, "Can someone please tell @CreighDeeds he is running for Governor of an urban/suburban state -- not Sheriff of Mayberry."
Fellow blogger Lowell Feld followed with an analysis of voting patterns in recent election cycles, concluding that Deeds "needs to do something to fire up the people who live in the 'urban crescent.' "
The message from the Deeds campaign -- and professional Democratic strategists not affiliated with the effort -- has been that it is far too early to draw conclusions. The campaign spent much of the final weeks before the June 9 primary in Northern Virginia and has three months before November to do the same. Staff members say it makes sense to spend some of an otherwise quiet August playing up Deeds's rural roots, picking up free media along the way and forcing Republican Robert F. McDonnell to spend resources in parts of the state he might have considered safe.
"There are some bloggers who think that because I'm from rural Virginia, I can take for granted some bloc of Virginians," Deeds said during a call with the media Monday, noting he is spending just nine days on the push. "Does that mean that Northern Virginia is any less important? Absolutely not. That's where the election will be won or lost."
The Deeds Country label comes from an old map on the inside cover of a book about the history of Bath County. A section of the eastern part of the county near where Deeds lives is labeled with the moniker. The label also dates to the 2001 campaign, when Mark Warner took the governor's mansion by being the first Democrat in ages to win in rural Virginia. His slogan in those areas: "This is Warner Country."
Deeds campaign manager Joe Abbey said that Warner remains popular in those areas and that the Deeds tour gives the campaign a chance to talk about economic policies Warner advocated and McDonnell opposed. Although campaign workers are counting on Northern Virginia to make up 33 to 35 percent of the electorate, they think the rural swath could be as much as 25 percent.
"He won the primary because people believed he was a candidate who could campaign and compete in all corners of Virginia," Abbey said. "None of that has changed. So he's campaigning in all parts of the Virginia."
Pete Brodnitz, a pollster who helped Kaine devise his winning suburban strategy in 2005, endorsed the tour as one piece of an effort that will also reach out to suburban voters.
The rural swing can be used to signal to voters that Deeds has thought deeply about the economic challenges facing more depressed areas of the state -- and that might be appealing everywhere, Brodnitz said. Plus, it helps Deeds shape his story and play up what sets his candidacy apart.
"He can say, 'This is what makes me different; these are my roots,' " Brodnitz said. "It's useful for voters to always know what makes you unique."
Democratic strategist Steve Jarding, who helped build Warner's popularity in those same rural areas in 2001, said he, too, thinks an August trip through rural Virginia is a good idea for Deeds.
"Guys like Warner proved that as a Democrat, you can get votes in any part of Virginia, but you've got to go work it," Jarding said. "They probably figure, let's do that early, and by the end, we'll probably camp out in the higher population areas."
Indeed, as summer turns to fall, Abbey promised his candidate will be visible everywhere.
"We'll spend a lot of time in Tidewater. We'll spend lot of time in Richmond," Abbey said. "We'll spend a heck of lot of time in Northern Virginia."