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

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 5, 2009; B04

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.

"And it worked," said campaign manager Joe Abbey. "The only time we were on the move was when we talked about the thesis."

Polls that had showed Deeds trailing McDonnell badly since June began to tighten. But there was deep unease from Democrats in Richmond and Washington about the strategy, and soon buzz grew that the campaign had become too negative.

Seeking a vision

In August, legislators gathered in Richmond for a one-day special session. Abbey made the trip so he could meet behind closed doors in succession with the Democratic caucuses in the House of Delegates and Senate and explain the strategy. Some lawmakers came away concerned, two said at the time. What about Deeds and his vision?

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, who also serves as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and other party leaders expressed reservations as well.

Even Deeds grew uncomfortable, said a Democratic strategist familiar with the campaign.

Democratic strategists and Deeds advisers spoke on condition of anonymity because they didn't want be seen as criticizing a losing campaign.

"He kept hearing from people, in every corner of the state . . . that he was running too negative a campaign," said the strategist. "His advisers were convinced that running a negative campaign was the only way to stay in the game. Despite his concern, he was never willing to overrule them."

Top campaign aides insist that much of the public perception about their message came from being vastly outspent by McDonnell and his Republican allies. McDonnell could afford to run positive and negative ads, but Deeds's advisers thought they could afford only to choose one or the other. According to campaign figures, McDonnell and Republican allies spent almost twice as much as Deeds on TV advertising.

Money became even more of a problem after Deeds muffed answers to reporters' questions about whether he would raise taxes for transportation in the moments after a debate in Fairfax County in September. The videotaped encounter made Deeds look inarticulate, indecisive and impatient. "We knew immediately it was a big problem," said one Deeds adviser. "It was a mistake at a staff level."

Deeds's bumbling answer also did little to inspire confidence among suburbanites. His geographic strategy required him to do better than other Democrats in rural areas, which were the most uneasy about Obama and Democratic leadership in Washington, anxiety that was fed by a multimillion dollar ad campaign downstate over the cap-and-trade climate bill backed by Democrats in Congress.

Tour backfires

In August, his campaign launched a splashy tour of rural "Deeds Country" and later rolled out ads extolling Deeds, a senator from Bath County, as a native who understood the region. The tour did nothing to help suburban voters think that Deeds understood their concerns. It also did little to convince rural voters that this was the year to back a Democrat. Instead of winning Northern Virginia by 56 percent, he captured only 45 percent of the vote. Instead of approaching a draw in rural areas, he was trounced by 30 percentage points. He also fell short of his campaign's goals in the Tidewater and Richmond.

With criticism of the Deeds Country tour in mind, top aides have tallied figures recently that show the campaign spent less than a fifth of its media money and quarter of his time there. But it helped create an impression that Deeds was not the candidate of the growing suburbs.

"It fed a perception that he would be overwhelmingly concerned with that part of the state," the strategist said.

First elected to the legislature in 1993 as a conservative Democrat from a conservative area, Deeds had fallen out of step with a party based in the state's most populated regions. Asked whether he was an Obama Democrat during a debate with McDonnell in Fairfax, Deeds responded, "I'm a Creigh Deeds Democrat."

His problem Tuesday was that not enough other voters saw themselves that way.

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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