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Race to Richmond: Deeds vs. McDonnell

Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate R. Creigh Deeds, left, and Republican challenger Robert F. McDonnell talk before the start of a televised debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters and AARP in Richmond.
Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate R. Creigh Deeds, left, and Republican challenger Robert F. McDonnell talk before the start of a televised debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters and AARP in Richmond. (By Steve Helber -- Associated Press)

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Rosalind S. Helderman and Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 21, 2009; 2:00 PM

Washington Post staff writers Rosalind Helderman and Amy Gardner were online Wednesday, Oct. 21, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the race for governor of Virginia between Democratic candidate R. Creigh Deeds and Republican Robert F. McDonnell, the day after they appear in Salem for their fourth and final debate with just two weeks left in the fiercely contested race.

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Complete Coverage: Race to Richmond

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Amy Gardner: Hello Virginia politicos! Welcome to our chat this week. I'm Amy Gardner and I'm joined by my colleague Roz Helderman. It's been a big week in the governor's race, with a final televised debate last night, dramatic poll numbers giving Republican Bob McDonnell an edge and an appearance by Democrat Creigh Deeds with former president Bill Clinton. In other words: There's loads to talk about -- so fire away!

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Richmond, Va.: You've reported several times that Deeds is having a tough time energizing Democrats and Obama voters and that was something he was going to emphasize over the next two weeks. However, last night he waffled on his support for the public option. Combined with his distancing himself from many of Obama and Congressional Democrat policies, is Deeds contradicting his proclaimed path to victory?

Amy Gardner: Great question. I think this speaks to the heart of Deeds's challenge -- the fact that he is a conservative Democrat, many of whose positions are to the right of President Obama, but who is seeking election in a year when the clear path to victory for a Democrat is to rally Obama voters. I don't know if Deeds has "waffled," but certainly he has wobbled a little bit trying to explain his views on health care reform and cap and trade legislation without sounding like he is contradicting Obama and without alienating those who support the president.

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Charlotte, N.C.: With Obama set to campaign for Deeds at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, what impact do you think that will have on the votes of white Independent and Democratic voters in the Hampton Roads area? The strategy of the campaign stop seems mainly directed to the significant population of blacks in the area. I wonder how much of an affect this event will have on whites, since McDonell was a legislator from here.

Amy Gardner: Well, two thoughts. First, I think it's a mistake to assume that Obama appeals only to black voters. His strong showing in all the suburbs of Virginia last year tells us otherwise. Secondly, I wouldn't put white independent and white Democratic voters in the same category -- especially in Virginia Beach, McDonnell's hometown and a place where he is likely to perform well on Nov. 3 among independents. Obama's appearance certainly is intended to rally large African-American centers across the state, including Hampton Roads. But it's also intended to reach core Democratic voters, including white voters, in those same regions.

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Fairfax County, Va.: I am a Virginia Democrat who is happily volunteering for Deeds, Wagner, Shannon, and my delegate, but I have a question. I am used to getting ridiculous, huge numbers of mail pieces before each election (even the Democratic primary earlier this year). So far I don't remember getting any mail from Deeds or McDonnell asking for my vote. Is that because both sides already know that I will vote for Deeds, or do mailings cost too much nowadays? As always, I get requests for political donations to my party, but that's a different kind of mail.

Rosalind Heldernan: Nope, if you're a committed Democrat, in most years you would be getting a lot of mail, particularly from Democrats reminding you that election day is coming up. That's classic get out the vote organization. It's possibly just a coincidence, or it may be a sign of lack of money from the campaigns. The Deeds campaign is being significantly outspent in this race. Still, I'd be interested in talking to you further. Would you mind sending me an email? I'm heldermanr@washpost.com

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Crystal City, Va.: Submitteing early -- some of gotta work! Has either candidate addressed how to keep tax dollars raised in Northern Virginia focussed on Northern Virginia transportation projects? I hate that our region pays the most in taxes only to see much of the funds spent in other parts of the state without our congestion issues.

Rosalind Heldernan: They both have made noise about the need to readjust state funding formulas to keep more money in Northern Virginia--particularly at their Northern Virginia campaign stops. Bob McDonnell has made keeping more NoVa sales tax revenues in the region a part of his transportation package. However, when pushed, he's acknowledged that convincing lawmakers statewide to change some of those formulas would be politically very difficult.

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Northern Virginia: In my district, some Democrats are most worried about the delegate race (our incumbent is a Democrat, but reporting and polling on these races is so thin that we are all having to guess who is in good shape and who is not). Someone asked me yesterday "how it looked" for "the election" and when I answered about Deeds, it turned out they meant the delegate race. Are there patches of intensity (greater participation by voters) where we have tight delegate races, or are most voters not tuned into those either?

Amy Gardner: Sadly, even incumbent delegates in Virginia have shamefully low name identification even in their own districts. Voters don't pay attention to their state legislatures the way they should. But there are quite a few hotly contested races across the state, including Northern Virginia, where three Democratic incumbents in particular are fighting to hang on. They are Margi Vanderhye of McLean (34th), Chuck Caputo of western Fairfax County and eastern Loudoun (67th) and David Poisson of eastern Loudoun (32nd). On the Republican side, two longtime incumbents, Dave Albo of the Lorton area (42th) and Tom Rust of Herndon (86th) have long been targeted by Democrats in increasingly blue-tilting areas. All of these races are being run hard and with lots of money, including infusions from the state parties.

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Arlington, Va.: Does it look like the Republican candidates for Lt. Governor and Attorney General will win because they are on the same ticket with McDonnell? I'm wondering because Virginia's touch screen voting makes it quite easy to split tickets.

Rosalind Heldernan: There are far fewer public polls on the downticket races than on the big event. Every one I've seen has put Democrats Jody Wagner and Steven Shannon well behind Republicans Bill Bolling and Ken Cuccinelli. In fact, the most recent Post poll had Bolling, Cuccinelli and Bob McDonnell all ahead by the same margin--9 points--which may show the power of coattails in determining people's votes.

Still, Virginia has a long tradition of ticket splitting. It happened in both 2001 and 2005. Wagner is well known in the Virginia Beach area and could pick up votes in that area from McDonnell supporters. She might also get support from people who'd like to see a woman in office. Steve Shannon benefits from ties to Northern Virginia. Plus, Ken Cuccinelli is a controversial figure. Some voters might be happy to support McDonnell but feel Cuccinelli is just too conservative for them.

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Richmond, Va.: Is Deeds lackluster campaign dragging down any of the Democratic House candidates? Are any of them trying to distance themselves from being a "Deeds Democrat?"

Amy Gardner: There's no question that Democratic candidates for the House of Delegates are nervous about what happens at the top of the ticket. The conventional wisdom is that if Deeds closes the gap, even without winning, then the effect of his loss will be less down the ballot. But if the margins we're seeing in some polls -- 8, 12, and so on -- hold fast through Election Day, Democrats fear that the damages will spill into those legislative contests. Remember, though, that Democrats are not so much worried that more voters will flock to McDonnell as they are that core Democrats will stay home. If that's true, I'm not sure how standing next to Deeds is contagious.

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Allentown, Pa.: The Pennsylvania Republican Party has an ad on their Web site where they spell Obama's name with a hammer and sickle. Does this get the base galzanized? Would this work in Virginia? Or is this offensive?

In case you wish to factcheck this, the following is a link to the Allentown Morning Call article on this:

Tailgunner Joan (Orie-Melvin)? (Capitol Ideas, Oct. 16)

Rosalind Heldernan: Would that galvanize the base in Virginia? Possibly. But the Republicans seem to have had little trouble galvanizing their base in this election. My guess is the party would avoid that tactic--and has avoided such tactics--so as not to alienate independent voters, many of whom would find that offensive. Bob McDonnell has been very careful in this campaign with how he has criticized President Obama. He's gone after the policies but he's not edged into "you lie!" territory. After Obama won the Nobel Prize, a moment where he could easiliy have gone for snark, McDonnell went for the careful answer. He said he was "delighted" that Obama had won and brought honor to the country.

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Washington, D.C.: Is there any chance that the down ballot candidates for Lt. Gov. and Attorney General will be anything other than from the party that wins the governorship? Seems like a GOP sweep is far more likely than a McDonnell win and a Wagner or Shannon upset.

Rosalind Heldernan: I answered a very similar question from another reader. The polls do indeed look good for a Republican sweep, but split tickets have become something of the norm in Virginia and is not out of the question this year.

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New York: Has Deeds mentioned that McDonnell has received a $50,000 contribution from Dan Snyder, possibly the most detested person in the Washington area? I would think McDonnell would want to keep that quiet.

Rosalind Heldernan: The donation popped up in the McDonnell's most recent fundraiser report. I believe we've mentioned it a few times in print. I haven't heard yet from Deeds on the donation, but maybe it'd be a smart strategy for him to start talking about it!

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Richmond, Va.: Did your prolonged reporting on McDonnell's thesis actually harm Deeds as today's PPP results -- even though you don't like their methodology -- say people have been turned off by the constant harping on it?

Amy Gardner: Well, certainly there's an argument to be made that we did some "prolonged" reporting on the thesis, but it wasn't with the goal of helping Deeds. It was a legitimate news story that then took on a life of its own and that we continued to cover. Also, as much as I'd like to think otherwise, most of those polled are not reading The Washington Post. They're seeing Deeds's ads, which focused heavily on the thesis for many weeks. Voter turn-off in that instance is directed at Deeds, I think.

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Reston, Va.: I'm a female voter, probably for McDonnell, mostly because I feel that Deeds went out of his way to not say anything about his position, and to just attack McDonnell. When are politicians going to realize that they cut off their own noses when they just go after their opponent, and don't address where they stand and what they want to do?

Rosalind Heldernan: Thank you for this perspective. You are not alone in holding this view--a recent Post poll found that 56 percent of likely voters thought Deeds had run a mostly negative campaign while 60 percent of voters though McDonnell had run a mostly positive campaign.

The Deeds campaign lately has been talking a great deal about how vastly outspent they are now on the air by negative ads being run against them by McDonnell and various Republican groups. I just spent 24 hours in Roanoke, where I can tell you it feels like every other ad is a negative ad against Deeds, run by McDonnell, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or the NRA. But Deeds certainly had a heavy rotation going against McDonnell on social issues for a while, particularly in Northern Virginia. Campaigns run negative ads because they do tend to work. But once a politician has earned a reputation for running negative ads, it's hard to break through that perception.

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Atlanta, Ga.: Do you know of any polling results in this race just for Fairfax County? That county is traditionally home to one out of every seven votes cast in a Virginia statewide race. I don't know of any Democrat who has been elected governor at least since the 1980s without winning Fairfax...

Amy Gardner: Your summary is right: A Democrat has to win Fairfax to win - and if Deeds loses it, it will mean that he is losing by a landslide, I suspect. But looked at in reverse, Bob McDonnell does not need to win Fairfax to win all of Virginia. He's very strong in rural Va., the exurbs, greater Richmond and his hometown, Virginia Beach. So: I hate to go out on a limb like this because when I do I'm usually wrong. But even if Deeds loses overall, it would be a huge stunner if he lost Fairfax.

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Dunn Loring, Va.: Several reports on Bill Clinton's visit to Deeds headquarters noted the relatively low turnout. Is this more a reflection on the lack of passion for Deeds, or is it a statement about Clinton's falling appeal to Virginia voters?

Amy Gardner: Well, I reported about 300, and the Deeds campaign said 350. The parking lots were full. The line to get in the door was three abreast and snaked around the building. The office suite, in an office building in Tysons Corner, was pretty packed. I'm loath to say that it was low or not, so I'll let you judge for yourself.

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Loudoun County, Va.: Has anyone done an analysis on McDonnell's proposal to sell liquor stores as a panacea to transportation funding? It seems shortsighted and lacking to me.

Even the Republican guy in an earlier chat accused him of "Easy Answerism." That resonated with me, because that seems to be the theme of all his proposals.

Rosalind Heldernan: Amy Gardner did a story all about the transportation proposals of both candidates just recently. The theme: Both guys were relying on proposals that would be difficult to achieve politically or relied on financial projections that were questionable. Maybe we could get a link on that?

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Ashburn, Va.: Oh God, Cuccinelli is doing well, really?

I thought that was a joke when I first heard it. Do people even know about that guy?

Amy Gardner: Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican nominee for governor, is running a solid campaign. He has substantially less money on hand than Democrat Steve Shannon. But he is very popular in the Republican base. And if McDonnell wins big, that won't hurt either. Again, voters tend not to pay too much attention to the down-ballot races -- though I will say that there is a robust history of split-ticket wins, including 2005, when Virginia elected Democrat Tim Kaine, Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling and Republican Attorney General Bob McDonnell.

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Alexandria, Va.: It seemed one great line heard from the debate was McDonnell's retort when asked about slow state expenditures that Tim Kaine (D) as been an absentee governor for the last year or so. Did this play well to the audience and will the DEM incumbent hurt Deeds's chances?

Rosalind Heldernan: Yup, Republicans including McDonnell have increasingly been running straight at Gov. Tim Kaine in this election for being a "part-time" governor and splitting his time with the Democratic National Committee. McDonnell hit that note particularly strongly in last night's debate. Yes, it seemed to play well in the audience. But it's hard to know what impact it's had on the state. The Post's last poll had Kaine's approval rating at a very healthy 60 percent. My own sense is that the attack has done some damage to Deeds--not because people are necessarily unhappy with Kaine as governor but because it's forced Deeds to confront head-on his party's national agenda. After all, Kaine agrees with it--he travels the country talking about it. Deeds has struggled to figure out how best to talk about those issues.

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Boonsboro, Md.: Hammer and Sickle: That is not the Pennsylvania Republican Web site, it is a private Web site. Allentown simply is not telling the truth.

Rosalind Heldernan: My apologies--I should have noted more clearly in my answer that I do not know the background of this issue and certainly wasn't vouching for the accuracy of the claim about the Pennslyvania party. I was merely addressing the question: Would the Republican Party of Virginia put that imagery on their website? And I think the answer is no, they would not.

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Rosalind Heldernan: Thank you so much for joining us! With 13 days left before the election, Amy and I have to run to get back to our day jobs. Thank you for reading and stay tuned for more about this exciting race!

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washingtonpost.com: R. Creigh Deeds (Post, Oct. 11) and Robert F. McDonnell (Post, Oct. 11)

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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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