By Rosalind S. Helderman and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 23, 2009
Sensing that victory in the race for Virginia governor is slipping away, Democrats at the national level are laying the groundwork to blame a loss in a key swing state on a weak candidate who ran a poor campaign that failed to fully embrace President Obama until days before the election.
Senior administration officials have expressed frustration with how Democrat R. Creigh Deeds has handled his campaign for governor, refusing early offers of strategic advice and failing to reach out to several key constituencies that helped Obama win Virginia in 2008, they say.
Democratic strategists said that over the summer, Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) offered Deeds advice on winning a statewide election. Among other things, Kaine, who is also chairman of the Democratic National Committee, told Deeds that he should lay out more of his own vision and stop attacking Republican Robert F. McDonnell so ferociously. But Deeds did not embrace the advice, according to a national Democratic strategist.
A senior administration official said Deeds badly erred on several fronts, including not doing a better job of coordinating with the White House. "I understood in the beginning why there was some reluctance to run all around the state with Barack Obama," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly about the race. "You don't do that in Virginia. But when you consider the African American turnout that they need, and then when you consider as well they've got a huge problem with surge voters, younger voters, we were just a natural for them."
A second administration official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said: "Obama, Kaine and others had drawn a road map to victory in Virginia. Deeds chose another path."
A loss for Deeds in Virginia -- which for the first time in decades supported the Democratic presidential candidate in last year's race -- would likely be seen as a sign that Obama's popularity is weakening in critical areas of the country. But the unusual preelection criticism could be an attempt to shield Obama from that narrative by ensuring that Deeds is blamed personally for the loss, particularly given the state's three-decade pattern of backing candidates from the party out of power in the White House.
Deeds advisers insist the notion that he has distanced himself from Obama isn't true. "We've enjoyed a tremendous relationship with the White House," said Mo Elleithee, a campaign spokesman. "The campaign has worked very closely with them and the DNC and the [Democratic Governors Association] from the very beginning. They have given us just about everything the campaign asked for."A key meeting
An adviser to the Deeds campaign said that on June 17, top campaign staffers held a meeting with the White House political team as well as representatives from the DNC and the Democratic Governors Association at the DGA's Washington offices. They came equipped with some requests of the White House: two visits by the president before Nov. 3, e-mails from the president to his Virginia supporters and a visit from Vice President Biden. Almost all of their requests have been met, the adviser said.
But national Democrats are contrasting Deeds with New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine and New York congressional candidate Bill Owens, who they say have more actively sought the White House's help and more vigorously and publicly backed its agenda. Polls show Corzine in a competitive position in New Jersey and Owens ahead, while Deeds has turned aggressively to Obama voters in recent days in an effort to overcome a significant deficit in the polls.
Although Deeds often praises the president on the campaign trail, he has distanced himself from Obama and Democratic policy priorities at times. At a debate in September, he declined the opportunity to label himself an "Obama Democrat." And just this week, he said he did not believe that a public health insurance option is necessary and that as governor he might consider opting out of one if Congress extends that right to states.
Deeds campaign officials said they're running a centrist campaign, in the mold of previous successful Virginia Democrats.
Obama will campaign with Deeds in Hampton Roads on Tuesday, and his political organizing group this week sent an e-mail signed by Obama to tens of thousands of Virginia supporters asking that they volunteer for Deeds to keep "the promise of change alive" in the commonwealth. The White House also signed off on a Deeds television commercial released Thursday in which Obama praises him.
But privately, administration officials said they see almost no way for Deeds to win on Nov. 3.
Asked to respond, a senior Deeds adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: "I have no interest in doing a postmortem on a race that we're working hard to win and that we think is still winnable. I don't see a need for either side to be critical -- we're all fighting for the same thing."
Kaine said he spoke at length with Obama about the race on Tuesday, and the governor rejected post-game analysis of a race he said can still be won. "You've got to sprint through the tape," Kaine said. "Quite often, the successful campaign is the one that tunes out the background noise and the doubters. Every campaign has them, and you've got to tune them out and go for the win."Wooing key Democrats
Democrats on both sides of the Potomac River cite prominent Democratic businesswoman Sheila Johnson's endorsement of McDonnell in July as the first sign of trouble in the Deeds campaign. They say Deeds let several weeks go by after his June 9 primary without calling Johnson, the co-founder of Black Entertainment Television and one of Kaine's leading donors.
A senior Deeds aide said that the Democrat traveled to Johnson's Middleburg ranch in April and that the two did not hit it off. Johnson mostly wanted to talk about her opposition to labor unions, and the aide said Deeds told Johnson that he had concerns about congressional legislation that unions favored, but she seemed unhappy that he was unwilling to "trash" unions.
The campaign decided after Deeds's primary win that the best approach was to have staffers try to set up another meeting. The aide said Deeds and staffers for Kaine's political action committee tried to reach Johnson a dozen times but that she did not return their calls. Deeds himself did not place a call.
Johnson declined to comment, but through a spokesman said she didn't remember when Deeds contacted her. She has been actively campaigning for McDonnell and stars in a television ad calling him the better bet to right the economy.
"She was the canary in the coal mine, not just because of how it might affect African American and women voters, but she's politically savvy -- she saw something going wrong in the campaign," said a national Democratic strategist.
With Johnson's defection, an endorsement from the nation's first elected black governor, Democrat L. Douglas Wilder, became more essential.
But as late as August, Deeds's campaign was calling around Richmond looking for a way to reach Wilder, according to a longtime state lobbyist and also Wilder's nephew, Michael Brown.
"It was a high official within the campaign who called," said Brown, who supports Deeds.
A Deeds adviser said the state senator placed his first post-primary call to Wilder on June 23, leaving a message, and rejected the idea that the campaign did not know how to reach him.
The White House also became deeply involved. Obama political director Patrick Gaspard spent two hours with Wilder in July trying to persuade him. Obama made a phone call. Last month, Wilder announced that he would not endorse either candidate in the race, issuing a lengthy statement largely critical of Deeds.
Staff writers Anita Kumar and Amy Gardner contributed to this report.