For Virginia politicians, is a Southern accent a bad thing?

By James Hohmann
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 15, 2010

Virginia's incoming governor, Robert F. McDonnell (R), has little in common with his two Democratic predecessors, but like Timothy M. Kaine and Mark Warner, he heads to the Executive Mansion sounding more like a Yankee than his recent opponent -- a seemingly trivial fact that might reveal an evolving pattern in Virginia politics:

Can a decidedly Southern way of speaking create a handicap for candidates trying to win a statewide office?

The last governor elected with even a whiff of a Southern accent, George Allen (R), won in 1997. Kaine grew up in the suburbs of Kansas City, Kan., and Warner, now a U.S. senator, is from Connecticut. McDonnell was born in Philadelphia and grew up in Mount Vernon.

McDonnell's rival last year, state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), failed to connect with progressives, independents and black voters, especially in the Washington suburbs, a shortcoming that had much to do with a poorly run campaign and a national mood unfavorable to his party. But some voters in those groups, who were critical to President Obama's victory in Virginia in 2008, reacted skeptically to Deeds's sometimes unclear, rural speaking style.

Virginia's shift from Republican red to up-for-grabs purple has been widely attributed to the increasing clout of Northern Virginians, many of whom are recent arrivals from points north. And some of those transplanted voters, like voters anywhere, are wary of candidates whose voices sound like relics of the Old South.

"An accent isn't a disqualifier, but it makes it harder for a politician to connect," said Mark Rozell, a political scientist at George Mason University. "There is that extra little burden on a candidate who is not quote-unquote from here."

There can be advantages in sounding like a true Virginian: North Carolina State University linguist Walt Wolfram said that some car salesmen affect Southern twangs in their Northern Virginia commercials because they don't want to seem too slick.

But several studies indicate that some people -- including Southerners -- stereotype speakers with Southern accents as honest and reliable but not too smart. And the accent can seem off-putting to some voters, including African Americans who voted in unusually high numbers in the 2008 presidential race.

"When white Southerners sound Southern, African Americans are viscerally suspicious of them, for obvious historical reasons," said Dennis R. Preston, an English professor at Oklahoma State University.

A Southern accent became an issue during the 2005 governor's race, when Kaine's campaign criticized the Republican candidate, former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore, who is from rural Gate City near the Tennessee border, because he did not "speak for himself" in his ads. The Kilgore campaign ran ads in small-town newspapers criticizing Kaine for "attacking Jerry Kilgore's Virginia accent." A Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist wrote just before Election Day that Kilgore's accent "sounds like Gomer Pyle on helium," which he said "equals the death penalty in NoVa."

Del. Terry G. Kilgore (R-Scott), the candidate's brother, said that the accent controversy created a "big backlash" against Kaine in rural Virginia, where Kilgore won, but that his winning margin there wasn't nearly enough to match Kaine's large margins in heavily populated areas such as Fairfax County.

"People often sell folks with accents like those of us from Appalachian areas short on a lot of things," Terry Kilgore said.

But Jerry Kilgore said he blames President George W. Bush's unpopularity rather than any speech patterns for his loss.

"I would hope in this day and age, particularly in Northern Virginia," that voters could get past "someone who doesn't talk like they do," the defeated candidate said. "I just would hope that they're not that shallow."

Deeds defeated two Northerners in the Democratic primary, Brian Moran, who retains a strong touch of Massachusetts in his speech, and Terry McAuliffe, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who struggled to overcome concerns about his lack of experience in Virginia government.

At a town hall-style meeting last January, a voter criticized McAuliffe for dropping his g's when he spoke so as to suggest a Southern accent. The candidate said, "I was born in Syracuse, New York. I'm proud of where I was born. But I am a Virginian."

Deeds didn't return a call seeking comment.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company