J.Chapman "Chap" Petersen admits he was a candidate without a base.
The state delegate from Fairfax City outraised his three opponents 2-to-1 in this month's Democratic primary for lieutenant governor. He trekked around Virginia in a 32-foot Roadmaster RV, a symbol of his determination to present himself as a centrist to the party's moderates outside Northern Virginia. At 37, he was an ambitious, fresh face who called former congresswoman and state senator Leslie L. Byrne -- his biggest threat for the nomination -- a dying breed of Democrat.
On June 14, his strategy backfired with a third-place loss to Byrne, who is from Fairfax County.
"I had decided from the get-go I was going to run in the primary like I would run in the general election" in November, Petersen said this week, reflecting on his lopsided loss. "Leslie's message was more an old-style, true-believer message. I was concentrating on saying something new. It didn't work." He will also be out of politics soon, having given up his delegate's seat to campaign full time for lieutenant governor.
Byrne, who also beat back Richmond Del. Viola O. Baskerville and state Sen. Phillip P. Puckett of Southwest Virginia, proved that primary voters are a small contingent of party activists, whether on the left or right.
"I think people are comfortable with me and they know who I am," she said, calling Petersen "a great fundraiser." But his defeat "speaks to knowing what you're doing with the money you're raising."
After two decades in Virginia politics, Byrne, 58, had perhaps the best name recognition among the candidates. Her long, relatively liberal record on social issues will be fodder for former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore, the GOP nominee for governor, against rival Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D). Byrne counters the criticism, saying that she believes in "fiscal responsibility at every juncture" and that government should not intrude in people's private lives.
That's moderate campaign-speak, but Byrne knew who to court to win the primary: key Democratic constituencies, among them labor and supporters of abortion rights and gay rights.
"Leslie had special-interest groups and she used them as a proxy for getting people out" to the polls, Petersen said. That made creating and reaching out to his own list of moderate voters all the more important. But he acknowledged that he lacked a strong organization, a failing largely the result of having an inexperienced campaign staff. "That was something we just never corrected," he said, referring to a staff shakeup in April.
It may not have helped that Petersen alienated Democrats in his own back yard, as some constituents grew unhappy with his more conservative views on abortion rights and gay rights. Byrne crushed him in a straw poll in March at a fundraiser outside Fairfax City for Gerald E. Connolly (D), chairman of the Fairfax Board of Supervisors. Petersen dismissed the poll as a minuscule representation of the primary electorate. But those are just the voters a candidate needs in elections with minuscule turnout.
Petersen's impressive donor base included law clients, auto dealers and other business leaders in Fairfax City, an extended Korean-American community through his Korean-American wife, and many friends and acquaintances through family contacts.
Byrne, meanwhile, directed her campaign volunteers to methodically contact 270,000 voters across Virginia.
Since the primary, Petersen has been back at his Washington law office at Bracewell and Giuliani, LLP. His General Assembly term expires in January. With three young children to support, he says he'll focus on earning a comfortable living for a while. However, he does not rule out another foray into politics.
"If there's an opportunity, I'm certainly open to coming back," he said.