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Race to Richmond: Deeds vs. McDonnell. Latest Polling, Transportation, Education, Social Issues

 Robert F. O'Donnell (R) and R. Creigh Deeds (D)
Robert F. O'Donnell (R) and R. Creigh Deeds (D)

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Amy Gardner and Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 30, 2009; 11:00 AM

Washington Post staff writers Amy Gardner and Sandhya Somashekhar were online Wednesday, Sept. 30, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss Virginia politics and the Race to Richmond between candidates R. Creigh Deeds (D) and Robert F. McDonnell (R), for governor.

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A Tug of War For Women's Votes in Race For Governor (Post, Sept. 30)

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Sandhya Somashekhar: Hi everyone, thanks for joining us today for a discussion about all things Virginia politics. With five weeks left to go before Election Day, we want all your burning questions about the Virginia governor's race. And go!

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Anonymous: I have seen statewide polling figures showing McDonnell ahead, but what are polls showing in Northern Virginia, which accounts for about 30 percent of the statewide vote? Seems like Deeds not only needs to win the region, but win it big (double-digit margin) to prevail statewide, as was the case for Jim Webb in 2007 and Obama last year in Virginia.

Sandhya Somashekhar: Thanks for your question. You're right, to win Creigh Deeds will have to rack up substantial margins in the Washington suburbs to offset McDonnell's advantages elsewhere in the state. In our most recent (Sept. 20) poll, Deeds led McDonnell 57 to 40 percent among likely voters in Northern Virginia, while the rest of state favored McDonnell 55 to 44 percent.

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Aldie, Va.: When the Post broke the thesis story, did you detect a shift in Deeds's focus on issues? Aside from social concerns, what issues does Deeds talk about the most on the campaign trail?

Amy Gardner: Hello, and thanks for the question. There's no question that Deeds's campaign strategy shifted pretty significantly after the story of the thesis broke on Aug. 30. Certainly his campaign was planning to focus on Bob McDonnell's record of conservatism, particularly on such social issues as abortion and covenant marriage. But since then it's been pretty much a blitz about McDonnell's thesis and the votes he's taken in the General Assembly that have matched some of the ideas laid out in it.

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washingtonpost.com: Virginia's Regional Divide on the Issues (Behind the Numbers, Sept. 29)

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Purcellville, Va,: Is Northern Virginia's lack of awareness of state politics frustrating for you? As you write about issues, do you feel as if you're starting from the ground up? As a native of Tidewater, but a 23-resident of Northern Virginia, I've often seen media coverage of state politics overshadowed by national politics, given our proximity to D.C. Compared to other media markets, we see little of what goes on in Richmond. I think this is why McDonnell was doing so well in the Northern Virginia polls until the thesis story. People here had no idea about his legislative record on social issues and were buying into the moderate image McDonnell projected this summer.

Sandhya Somashekhar: Really great question. While I would agree that Northern Virginia residents have a more Washington-centric focus than people elsewhere in the state, it's not frustrating for our Washington-centric newspaper. It can be a challenge for statewide candidates, though, as I think we've seen this year.

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Fairfax County, Va.: In the part of Virginia where I live, there is a significant voting bloc of people who are 1st or 2nd generation Americans, coming from South Asia, Eastern Europe, East Asia, South America, Africa, you name it. They are college kids, small business owners, doctors, tech entrepeneurs, taxi drivers, and others, plus the grandparents who may not be as fluent. They have to be U.S. citizens to be registered voters, of course.

We (understandably) hear so much about swing groups like "working moms" that I am just curious to hear any or all of your insights on this other group of voters, even basic things like what these voters are called by pundits, whether they vote D, R, or both, how important are they to Northern Virginia or other Virginia vote totals, what outreach goes on by the candidates, and so on.

Amy Gardner: Hi there, this is a terrific question. Historically Democrats have had an advantage with first- and second-generation immigrant communities, but Republicans, acutely aware of this, have in recent election cycles sought to change that. Democratic policies toward immigration reform have certainly been viewed more favorably by immigrants than Republican counterparts. But well-established communities such as the large Korean enclave in Annandale, where business leaders are typically looking for solid pro-business candidates, have become battlegrounds. Frankly I've been surprised not to see immigration come up so much in this year's governor's race. As attorney general, Bob McDonnell was a pretty vocal advocate for immigration reform. For example, he supported the training of local law enforcement officers by federal immigration officials to target and ultimately deport illegal immigrants who have broken laws.

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washingtonpost.com: McDonnell's Thesis: Backlash (Behind the Numbers, Sept. 20)

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Franconia, Va.: How important are yard signs and road signs? If I see a series of median strips flooded with signs from "the other guy" should I rush around to put up my guy's signs? Or doesn't it matter? I always feel like it looks bad not to have a presence, but "old hands" usually say signs don't matter, which is hard to understand. And are yard signs a bigger thing in northern Virginia or the same everywhere?

Sandhya Somashekhar: Hi Franconia. Signs are a way for candidates to improve their name recognition and to give the impression that they have widespread support. This is especially important in local and state races because people might not even know there's an election coming up. They also are a good morale-booster for the people who put up the signs.

As for regional differences, I recently spent some time in rural Covington, Va., where one Deeds supporter joked that she'd put a sign up in the yard of her back-woods home but no one would see it.

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Gilbert's Corner, Va.: Do you believe the Post has committed enough resources to covering this race?

Amy Gardner: Methinks this might be a trick question. We've got an unprecedented team this year: four reporters; a weekly summary page, Race to Richmond, in our Sunday edition; a daily blog of events, videos, snark, spin. What more could you ask for?

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Winchester, Va.: Will there be an article on McDonnell's relationship with Pat Robertson?

Amy Gardner: This is an interesting question. Do you feel there's something that hasn't been reported there? There's been an awful lot of ink spilled about McDonnell's relationship with Robertson: His attendance of CBN (now Regent) University for a master's degree in public policy and a law degree; the financial support his campaigns have received from Robertson; the help he got in his early legislative elections from Robertson's Christian Coalition; his appearance on Robertson's cable program, the 700 Club. Voters can judge for themselves the significance of these ties, but I think there's a danger in inferring what the ties reveal about McDonnell's views and what kind of governor he would be. McDonnell has said repeatedly, for example, that he is not a "puppet" of Robertson and got support from lots of different folks as he pursued a career in public service.

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Northern Virginia: I thought two issues would have more "traction" by now. One was Bob McDonnell's statement that it was inappropriate for President Obama to speak at Notre Dame's commencement because of Obama's pro-choice, mainstream Democratic views, even though other presidents, some pro-choice, have spoken there without controversy. The Notre Dame flare-up was in line with other disrespectful treatment of the president by Republicans that hasn't happened with past presidents.

The other was McDonnell's successful urging to Republican legislators to turn down $125 million in federal stimulus money for unemployed people in Virginia. Wing nuts like Sarah Palin and Mark Sanford were the only sitting governors who took this position and they were overruled by their own legislatures. Why aren't we seeing some of those unemployed people in TV ads?

What happened with these two issues that made them go away? Or do you think they didn't go away?

Sandhya Somashekhar: On the Notre Dame issue, that might better be asked of the Deeds campaign.

On the unemployment issue, Deeds has certainly talked about the rejection of the stimulus money and proposed legislation that would make the state eligible next year. But he has perhaps not hammered on that subject with the same oomph as his other attacks.

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Vienna, Va.: They've been overshadowed a bit by the governor's race, but how are the other two races on the statewide ticket shaping up? Has there been any polling done on either the Lt. Governor or Attorney General races?

Sandhya Somashekhar: We expect some poll numbers on these races soon.

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Arlington, Va.: As McDonnell uses his family in his ads, what do his wife and working children do for a living? I guess the same is the same for Deeds family.

Amy Gardner: McDonnell has five children, and two of them are out in the world working: Jeanine, an Iraq war veteran and now a civilian contractor with SAIC; and Cailin coordinates youth outreach for the state GOP. His wife, Maureen, worked a bunch of different jobs before starting a family, and since then has run a variety of businesses out of their home, including nutrition and home decorating businesses, according to the campaign. She is focused only on the campaign this year, however.

Deeds's wife Pam is a state employee, working for the Virginia Employment Commission. Their oldest of four children, Amanda, is out of school and working in Northern Virginia. Sorry, couldn't find out what she does on short notice.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Bob McDonnell is getting a lot of flack (deserved, in my opinion) for his views on women. But I don't understand why the media is giving him such a pass in this race on something he signalled much more recently. Just six years ago (during the hearings on Verbena Askew) he indicated that sexual behavior in one's own bedroom was a crucial fitness criterion for public office. But when asked if he himself had ever violated "Natural Law," he claimed not to recall. Has anyone in the media had the courage to ask him if his memory about his sex life has improved since then? The man seems to yearn for a society right out of The Scarlet Letter -- but with Rev. Dimmesdale apparently getting immunity from his own precious Law. Or have I missed something?

Amy Gardner: The McDonnell campaign would disagree with you here.

Scrutiny Spreads to '03 McDonnell Remarks (Post, Sept. 9)

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Reston, Va.: I'm voting for Deeds because I don't like McDonnell's social conservatism (hey, I'm a working woman, according to McDonnell I'm detrimental to families!), but I can't help but agree with the McDonnell campaign's point that Deeds doesn't seem to have much of a platform beyond "don't vote for McDonnell." I'm concerned that it's going to hurt Deeds in the demographics McDonnell -hasn't- disparaged.

Amy Gardner: There's no question that Deeds is focusing pretty heavily on the thesis, and there's a lot of debate about whether he's risking a) alienating people who are tired of the message and b) not defining himself very well beyond the thesis. Polling shows that while the thesis has harmed McDonnell, particularly among women, there are a lot of folks who appear to be drifting away from McDonnell but not to Deeds. In other words, the proportion of undecided voters is growing. That's not good for Deeds, and he needs to give those voters a reason to come to him if he is to win on Nov. 3.

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Great Falls: As I watch the national debate on health care, I have come to conclude that Republicans in the Senate and House are against anything that aids private citizens and in favor of things that favor big business. In other words I am now generally biased against Republican candidates. I do not need Deeds's negative ads based upon McDonnell's 20-year-old thesis to convince me to not vote for the Repubican. I do not need the Washington Post's blatant bias by its editors and reporters favoring Deeds to not vote for McDonnell. However, Deeds has done nothing to convince me I should vote for him, and that is important. Deeds comes from rural Virginia and has not been a friend for the needs of Northern Virginia. He has done and said nothing to convince me that he would do anything to help Northern Virginia with its problems, should he be elected. What is his obvious reluctance to address these issues or does he think that the women of Northern irginia will simply fall for his negative hype about McDonnell?

Sandhya Somashekhar: Hi Great Falls. There is evidence that both candidates' approval ratings are slipping as the attacks get more negative. And in Amy and my story today, we describe the potential pitfalls for Deeds in focusing so intently on the thesis.

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washingtonpost.com: A Tug of War For Women's Votes in Race For Governor (Post, Sept. 30)

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Wokingham, U.K.: Is the Virginia election really a referendum on Obama, meaning that the local Republicans gain votes in proportion to whatever buyer's remorse the national electorate is feeling?

Amy Gardner: We've certainly heard from some voters that they're reluctant to vote for Deeds because they don't want to send President Obama the message that they like his policy agenda. How influential that group of voters will be is of course the big question. Obama is a double-edged sword for Deeds; he is less popular in rural Virginia, where concern about cap and trade, health care reform and card-check legislation is stronger. But he's still hugely popular in urban Virginia, especially among African-American voters. Deeds needs Obama to campaign for him in some places but not others. It'll be interesting to watch over the next few weeks how he manages that one.

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washingtonpost.com: '89 Thesis A Different Side of McDonnell (Post, Aug. 30)

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Stone Ridge, Va.: Since the McDonnell campaign has used his family in ads, do you believe that it's fair game to check out their back stories? For example, what exactly did his daughter do in Iraq?

Amy Gardner: Jeanine McDonnell was a lieutenant and a platoon leader in Iraq, where she served a 12-month tour. Her service followed four years on an ROTC scholarship at Notre Dame (her dad's alma mater too). That's all I know.

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Arlington, Va.: Thanks for the reporting on McDonnell's thesis, but what about Deeds's writings? Have you reported on any of his law school writings? Even if it is boring and immaterial, shouldn't you at least report on it?

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washingtonpost.com: Deeds' Law Review Articles

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washingtonpost.com: Scrutiny Spreads to '03 McDonnell Remarks (Post, Sept. 9)

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Not your fans: You probably don't care, and won't print this comment, but I am very unhappy with the apparent bias toward Deeds that I have seen in your coverage of the Virginia race. You never seem to miss an opportunity to revisit the ridiculous thesis issue while not even trying to critically appraise Deeds's past views and voting records. It's very obvious to me that you're simply following lockstep with your editorial page's preference to Deeds, whom I have absolutely no doubt The Post will endorse. I realize that you two want to keep your jobs, but please understand that you're fooling nobody with your approach.

Amy Gardner: Lots of folks think we have bias -- always have and always will. It's important to point out, though, that we didn't make the thesis a huge issue. The Deeds campaign did. We put it out there because we saw something that we judged would be of interest to our readers. We were right about that. It has genuinely moved the numbers in most recent polls, so to argue that it's "ridiculous" is valid as a private point of view, but not as a criticism of our coverage of it. If you think it would have been fair and balanced of us not to have published the details at all, I'm afraid that's not reasonable.

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Roseland, N.J.: What does polling say about the voters' opinions on the candidates' positions on transportation? Has there been much reaction to Deeds's recent WP op-ed on the subject (esp. his line on new taxes)?

Amy Gardner: Hi there -- most polls show that Bob McDonnell leads Deeds among voters in terms of how they rate the candidates' ability to address transportation. And most other issues -- jobs, the economy, taxes. This is something we explored in this morning's story -- that minus the thesis, McDonnell has the advantage in this race. Deeds takes a risk focusing so heavily on the thesis without spending more time defining himself on those other issues.

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re: Reston, Va.: So the poster from Reston is admitting that she is going to vote for someone who doesn't have a platform.

Wow.

Just...wow.

Amy Gardner: Thanks for the thought.

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Arlington, Va.: With the governorship in Virginia being such a weak office (the one term limit is ridiculous!), does it really matter who wins?

Sandhya Somashekhar: The governor has a great deal of say over the state budget. As my colleague Anita Kumar just pointed out to me, Gov. Kaine just eliminated 1,000 jobs in the effort to balance the budget. He appoints university heads, judges and the State Corporation Commission, a powerful agency that oversees utilities. Kaine has vetoed bills that would have expanded the death penalty. The governor also plays a key role in attracting businesses. That's what I have off the top of my head. I'm sure I'm missing a lot.

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Lucketts, Va.: For many of us here in Northern Virginia, McDonnell's legislative record on social issues (targeting women and gays) is a deal-breaker. How do major business groups in the area deal with that and justify their endorsements? Given his poll numbers in the rest of the state, his reputation doesn't appear to matter, but for business leaders in supposedly more progressive Northern Virginia to do that is troubling, especially since so many of McDonnell's funding ideas will be dead on arrival in the General Assembly.

Sandhya Somashekhar: Business leaders have historically supported Republicans in Virginia, and when they haven't it has been in instances where the Republican is viewed as more focused on social issues and ideology than practical concerns such as transportation and education. Despite his record on social issues, McDonnell has successfully persuaded business leaders this year that he is pragmatic and business-oriented, in part by painting Deeds as beholden to labor unions.

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Amy Gardner: Alright, folks ... thanks so much for great questions and comments! Now go have some lunch. Sandhya and I are hungry.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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