Va. Democrats running out of time, tactics, in Deeds push

Kip Malinosky, left, a former Obama campaign volunteer canvassing for Democrat R. Creigh Deeds, talks to Ryan McLaughlin in Arlington County about the election. Motiving the liberal base has been "very difficult," Malinosky said.
Kip Malinosky, left, a former Obama campaign volunteer canvassing for Democrat R. Creigh Deeds, talks to Ryan McLaughlin in Arlington County about the election. Motiving the liberal base has been "very difficult," Malinosky said. (Katherine Frey/the Washington Post)
Buy Photo
By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 26, 2009

A year ago, the sidewalk would have been full of volunteers ready to fan out into the neighborhoods with satchels full of campaign fliers. But on Saturday morning, it was just Tiffany Quivers, standing in front of a Fairfax County strip mall in a "Seize the Day" T-shirt, getting a last-minute primer about the Democrats on the Nov. 3 ballot.

It was a troubling start for Quivers, a Virginia native who until two weeks ago had little to say about Democratic gubernatorial hopeful R. Creigh Deeds. Her family, die-hard Democrats from tiny Charles City outside of Richmond, had seemed "blasé" about him. Then the group Black Women for Obama for Change endorsed him, persuading her to sign up for his campaign to prevent Virginia from returning to its old conservative ways by supporting former attorney general Robert F. McDonnell, Deeds's Republican opponent.

"I'm concerned," she said, sliding into her gray Lexus after picking up her clipboard of names and addresses. "There's a lot of work to do in 10 days."

Deeds's campaign hinges on that impulse. He has lagged in the polls since summer, especially among the independents who have been key to recent Democratic successes in Virginia. The campaign now sees its hope in rallying the core, liberal Democratic activists who have so far been uninspired by his candidacy and the broad coalition of minorities, young people and less-engaged voters who led Virginia to support Barack Obama after four decades of backing Republican presidential candidates.

The state senator from Bath County will be helped along Tuesday by Obama, who will hold a rally for him at Old Dominion University in Norfolk. The gesture could be too little, too late. Deeds kept the president at a distance over the summer as the moderate and rural voters who have made up his base grew uncomfortable with Obama's domestic agenda.

Last week, Deeds made less-than-enthusiastic comments about the possible public option for health care, alienating some liberal Obama supporters who have made health care their primary focus since November. And environmentally minded Democrats are unhappy with a recent ad in which Deeds criticized the climate change legislation making its way through Congress.

'It's just very difficult'

Campaign workers say they have struggled to motivate the party's liberal base in Northern Virginia, even though the election is being viewed as a first test of Obama's political strength.

"I've been pulling every trick I can think of to get people involved," said Kip Malinosky, a Democratic activist in Arlington County and one of Obama's grass-roots organizers last year. "I've tried inspiring, I've tried anger, I've tried guilt-tripping. We've organized pizza nights. It's just very difficult."

Although Malinosky thinks Deeds's missteps contributed to his troubles this year, he said that President George W. Bush's departure removed a significant galvanizing force for Democrats. Enthusiasm is always lower in a nonpresidential year, he said, and most politicians do not possess Obama's magnetism as a candidate.

More challenging has been motivating the Obama "surge" voters -- freshly minted or long-dormant voters inspired to participate in the Democratic process because of Obama's charismatic and history-making campaign. They are people such as the young man with sleepy eyes who opened his door Friday to a House of Delegates candidate who was canvassing. The man could recall only that he voted for "the current president."

A few doors down at the same apartment complex off Route 1, south of the city of Alexandria, the candidate, Democrat Scott Surovell, encountered a mother who grabbed his literature with an irritated expression.

"I'm a first-time voter -- Obama for president, you know," she said, arms folded, the apartment door propped open with her foot. "I don't care about no roads. What are you going to do about child support?"

A 65-year-old woman at another door offered more promise. Surovell entered her apartment to find two framed newspaper front pages, from the day after the November election, declaring Obama the winner. On the wall were multiple portraits of the president, one that included the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and former president John F. Kennedy. When Surovell handed her his flier, she nodded. "Let me think about it," she said. "I usually vote Democratic."

Getting out the vote

Over the weekend, hundreds of volunteers walked neighborhoods in Northern Virginia and beyond for the Deeds campaign, reminding likely Democratic voters to come to the polls Nov. 3. Party officials estimate that volunteers knocked on more than 50,000 doors Saturday alone, despite the rain. The campaign managed to entice a large contingent of Obama backers to help with the effort by guaranteeing anyone who volunteered for a shift over the weekend a seat at the Norfolk rally.

Quivers, a consultant in her mid-30s who now lives in the District, was motivated less by what she called "gimmicks" and more by a deep sense of concern that her state could take a step backward with this election. She also supports Deeds's education initiatives.

She recalls last year as a joyous whirlwind. Her fondest memories are of dropping off voter registration forms at black hair salons and barbershops across the Washington area, boisterous places where she could convince the woman with rollers in her hair and the man slathered in shaving cream that, yes, a black man could be president.

If last year was about hope and joy, this year is about the grueling work that follows.

And grueling it was Saturday morning, as she walked door-to-door in a newish, upscale townhouse and condominium complex near Landmark Mall. An intermittent rain fell as she marched up and down stairs, knocking on unanswered doors and slipping fliers underneath them.

"Seems dead, doesn't it?" she said. "No TVs blaring, no children playing. Don't smell any breakfast cooking."

But the comforting scent of Lemon Pledge and hardwood floor polish poured out when Nancy Bodine, 66, opened the door after the first knock. "Oh yes, I'm a strong Democrat," she said. "I'll be voting for Deeds." A neighbor in a head wrap broke into a wide grin as Quivers began her pitch. "Keep it blue," she said warmly.

Around midday, Quivers made her way to a nearby park where Anne Holton, the first lady of Virginia, was to rouse volunteers doing the hard work of campaigning on a damp fall day. But only about a dozen showed up, most of them hard-core activists from the local Democratic committee. "They're counting on all those new voters not to turn out," Holton told the true believers. "If the Democratic core voters turn out, and they will, if the new voters turn out, we win."

Quivers said she is more determined than before to pull it out for Deeds. She wants to organize a last-minute trip through some black beauty salons and barbershops. But she rejects the notion that a Deeds defeat would tarnish what Obama's supporters accomplished last year.

"What is that saying? 'A setback is a setup for a comeback,' " she said as she headed over the 14th Street bridge back home.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company