Deeds's problems began long before campaign for Va. governor

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 5, 2009

Shortly after his unexpected win in the June Democratic primary, R. Creigh Deeds's seven top advisers mapped out what they thought was the only path to victory in a governor's race they believed was stacked against them.

He would win at least 56 percent of the vote in Northern Virginia, like most Democrats, and pair that with a better-than-average performance in the state's rural areas, where he made his home and his advisers hoped he could outperform other Democrats by winning nearly half the vote.

He would appeal to independents, but also the progressive voters who supported President Obama last year, and he would do it using a message they thought would unite the groups -- that Republican Robert F. McDonnell was an extremist on social issues.

Why Deeds was unable to do any of those things is rooted in poor groundwork laid over four years, a deeply flawed strategy over the past four months that never fully adapted to the shift in the political landscape since the 2008 presidential election and a campaign that was dramatically outspent by its Republican opponent.

McDonnell spent years wooing Virginia's top opinion makers. He worked carefully to persuade Democratic former governor L. Douglas Wilder to stay out of the race and to lead businesswoman Sheila Johnson, a major Democratic donor, to endorse him. Both defections were damaging to Deeds, particularly among African Americans, who were also cool to Deeds four years ago when he ran for attorney general.

Another leading voice Deeds failed to attract was Judy Ford Wason, a Republican whose staunch support for U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D) had helped raise the former governor's image as a bipartisan consensus builder.

Wason was something of a natural for Deeds: In recent years she has been particularly interested in the need for bipartisan redistricting of the legislature, long one of Deeds's signature initiatives. But Wason said Deeds never called to discuss the topic and never requested a meeting. Instead, staff for McDonnell asked whether she would meet and explain her position to the attorney general and some of his supporters. Soon, they began discussing transportation, education and other issues.

"In the discussion, he listened and gave thoughtful responses. I came to respect him as an individual who was open," she said. "Having my opinion asked, that was kind of nice."

In June, the Republican announced that Wason would head Virginians for McDonnell, the same role she held in Warner's campaign eight years ago.

The Deeds message was built around an expensive survey the campaign conducted in July and August of 600 Virginians who had registered to vote in 2008 and later backed Obama, helping to make him the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state in more than 40 years.

The campaign's pollster, David Petts, said the survey indicated the only thing that would inspire those voters to return to the polls was social issues and, in particular, abortion. The research indicated the message could appeal to independents, too.

In August, those issues became the centerpiece of the campaign's advertising, an effort heightened at the end of the month when The Washington Post published McDonnell's 1989 master's thesis, which espoused a litany of conservative causes and views.

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