Friday, June 12, 2009

Deeds-McDonnell II: Steel Cage, Exploding Ring, Death Match?

The Democratic primary couldn’t have worked out better for politics junkies.
We’ve got a rematch of the closest statewide race in Virginia history, one in which both candidates will be well funded by their respective parties and one on which the eyes of the nation will focus.

It could get ugly.

But it doesn’t’ have to.

It’s clear that both parties have nominated their strongest possible candidate. The Republicans did so by acclamation when Bill Bolling dodged a primary fight he certainly would have lost and ran for re-election as lieutenant governor, ceding the governor’s nomination to Bob McDonnell.

The Democrats got their strongest candidate in dramatic fashion when Sen. Creigh Deeds of Bath County beat Clinton confidante Terry McAuliffe and former Del. Brian Moran in an exciting come-from-behind-in-the-last-week race.

And Deeds didn’t just win. He won big. He won in Southwest and Southside and Northern Virginia and Central Virginia, in the valley, in the mountains, in the hills and in the hollers.
He won in every congressional district in the state, except the one that no Democrat can possibly lose in November, the African-American majority 3rd District. And he ran a strong second to McAuliffe there.

The breathless nature of Deeds’ comeback and the media attention it capture is no doubt reflected in his “primary bounce” – the first poll taken after the primary, by Rasmussen, has him leading McDonnell 47% to 41%. All the pre-primary polling showed McDonnell leading all three Democratic candidates, although Deeds was closest.

The switch in the polling is interesting – and probably meaningless.

Of the last four Virginia governors, only Mark Warner held a lead in the polls at this point in the race.

It’s too early and there’s too much left to happen.

But at least we know, as my publisher Bill O’Donovan said on Friday, “we have adults running on both sides.”

Indeed we do.

I know both Creigh and Bob fairly well from my years covering the General Assembly. I like them both. They’re both nice guys.

So in this instance, Leo Durocher’s admonition that “nice guys finish last” will be disproved.
There are some similarities between Deeds and McDonnell.

Both are good looking guys and pretty good speakers – Deeds speaks with more passion and McDonnell with more discipline. Each was singled out early in their careers in the House of Delegates as potential leaders of their respective parties. Both might have been future Speakers of the House if they hadn’t pursued other paths, Deeds to the Senate, McDonnell to statewide office.

Both have now won statewide campaigns, McDonnell in his 2005 350-vote squeaker over Deeds for attorney general and Deeds in his landslide victory over two better-funded, better-known primary opponents.

Neither is at the extreme of his party, despite what you’ll hear partisans say over the next five months.

It’s true that McDonnell comes from the religious right wing of his party. That he has ties to Pat Robertson. If there had never been a Roe v. Wade decision, it’s possible that Bob McDonnell would never have gotten into politics.

But, unlike some people on that side of the GOP, he’s never struck me as dogmatic. He’s never acted like the other side of the aisle doesn’t have a right to their opinion. He’s mostly made his arguments from reason, rather than from emotion.

Deeds is what we used to call a “Virginia Democrat” to differentiate from national Democrats. He’s not anti-gun (he got the NRA endorsement over McDonnell in 2005). He’s not anti-tobacco. He’s definitely farther to the right on social issues than his two opponents in the primary.

However, whereas some McAuliffe and Moran supporters might have been inclined to dismiss Deeds as a “Bubba” Democrat, he’s more than that.

He’s got a bone-deep populist streak that probably made him more progressive on economic issues than his opponents.

McDonnell may be touting himself as “Bob for Jobs,” but Creigh Deeds is the friend of the workingman in this race. McDonnell’s economic positions are mainline Republican. That means he’s the champion of the overdog. If you and your boss have a problem, Bob’s on the boss’ side, Creigh’s on your side.

Deeds, in conjunction with former Del. Jerrauld Jones, was involved in one of the few incidents I can remember in the House of Delegates where a floor speech actually changed somebody’s vote.

Trying to stop the Sons of Confederate Veterans from putting the treason flag (that’s what I called it, not what the delegates called it) on Virginia license plates, Jones recalled that, as the first African-American to attend his high school, that flag was used in race-baiting incidents to torment blacks. Deeds then rose and talked about how he had been raised in a home with a picture of Robert E. Lee on the wall and how he understood Southern Heritage. But, he said, he’d come to believe that that flag was truly offensive to a segment of Virginia’s population and it “shouldn’t be the official policy of this Commonwealth to offend a group of our citizens.”
Deeds and McDonnell bring unique strengths and weaknesses to this match up, which will likely be quite different from their 2005 race.

First, running at the top of the ticket is very different from running at the bottom of the ticket. The media pays very little attention to the down ticket races. You might get one shot in each media market (if that) to get a feature story. After that reporters – and particularly editors – want to turn their attention back to the marquee race.

So both Deeds and McDonnell will be under a level of scrutiny they didn’t see in 2005.
The dynamics are different too.

Virginia Democrats are on a roll in 2009. In 2005, although Mark Warner was the incumbent governor, Republicans held both U.S. Senate seats, a majority in the state’s Congressional delegation and majorities in both houses of the General Assembly.

Today, Republicans control only the House of Delegates, the attorney general’s office and the lieutenant governorship. A Democrat won Virginia in a presidential election last year for the first times since 1964.

That president, two U.S. Senators, the incumbent governor of Virginia, who is also the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, will all be on the stump for Deeds this fall.
In McDonnell’s favor, he’s been a popular attorney general. His personal brand is much more popular than his party’s brand and he and Bolling, unlike some others in the Virginia GOP, have apparently figured out that Virginia elections are won in the center. McDonnell has been moving to the center for months. He’s got to hope that doesn’t alienate his base.

Each of the candidates could use a little of what the other has in abundance.

McDonnell is very disciplined. He’s almost the perfect candidate from that perspective. He stays on message. He has the perfect hair. As he’s aged, he’s got the right amount of distinguished gray at the temples. He’s a little short, but other than that, a candidate right out of central casting.

However, sometimes he comes across, as stiff, cold, aloof, out of it and – let’s face it – horribly square.

Two examples, one well known the other not.

In the House, McDonnell was one of those who favored retaining Virginia’s sodomy statute, even after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. For those of you who don’t know, that statute made oral sex – even between married couples – a felony, among other things. Asked by a reporter if he’d ever violated the sodomy statute, McDonnell answered, “I can’t recall.”
Bad answer. First, that’s not the kind of thing you forget. Second, if you have, it’s insulting to your wife.

For future reference Bob, when asked a question that you don’t want to answer I suggest these dodges favored by past Virginia governors. Doug Wilder would have said, “That’s not the issue, (insert reporter’s name here)!” George Allen would have said, “Does anybody here have a relevant question?” Jim Gilmore would have said, “I don’t know much about (insert issue here), but if we cut the car tax there will be more of it.”You’re welcome, Bob. Presumably my consulting check is in the mail.

The other incident occurred during the annual General Assembly Democrats v. Republicans basketball game.

(This was an annual tradition until the Republicans ruined it by redistricting the Democrat’s star player, Del. Tom Jackson of Hillsville, out of the legislature. Since we’re on a tangent, the Republicans best player was probably Del. Kirk Cox of Colonial Heights who – like Pete Rose – always seemed to make up in sheer tenacity what he lacked in talent.)

McDonnell once played the whole game in sneakers, shorts that were at least two sizes to small and black dress socks. He looked – and I’m being kind – like a dweeb.

While McDonnell is a little stiff, Deeds could use a little more discipline.
Although he can give a great set-piece speech, he wings it too often.

And the passion that is his greatest strength can sometimes get away from him.
His enthusiasm sometimes overcomes his speaking ability and he can seem a bit flustered. He also has a tendency to flail his arms around when he speaks, which is distracting and sometimes can look – well; the best word is probably goofy.

Speaking of goofy, I know for a fact that footage exists of Creigh making a speech on the floor the House with one of those Green Bay Packers cheese head hats on his head.
I’m pretty sure you’d never catch McDonnell dead in one of those hats.

So Bob and Creigh. The dweeb vs. the cheesehead. Come out of your corners fighting, but let’s keep things clean.

May the best man win.

Bookmark and Share