GOP Eyes Strategy For One of Two '09 Governor Races

Even before State Sen. Creigh Deeds emerged as the relatively easy winner of the Democratic nomination for governor of Virginia last night, Republican leaders in the Old Dominion State were quietly discussing how best their nominee Bob McDonnell can take him on in one of only two races for governor anywhere in ’09. One way that GOPers I spoke to agreed on was to tie the 51-year-old Deeds to Tim Kaine, who doubles as outgoing governor of Virginia and national chairman of the Democratic Party.

“The Washington Post and other supporters of his were saying that [Deeds] is the Democrat best-suited to continue in the tradition of [former Democratic Gov. and current Sen.] Mark Warner and Tim Kaine,” Republican State Chairman Pat Mullins told me shortly before the results were in, “I say ‘fine.’ Kaine is not as popular as the national media makes him out to be.  And folks here definitely don’t like the fact he divides his time between the governorship and being Barack Obama’s national party chairman.  He’s a part-time governor.

Other Republicans noted that the McDonnell vs. Deeds race to succeed Kaine is, in many ways, a rematch between the two. Four years ago, as Kaine was winning the governorship, stalwart conservative McDonnell won the office of state attorney general over centrist Deeds by a microscopic 323 votes out of more than 2 million cast.  It took several weeks to count the ballots but, when as close as it was, McDonnell ended up the winner.

How “Centrist” Is Deeds?

Starting the race far behind, Bath County lawyer Deeds wound up winning nearly half the votes over two far-better-funded opponents from the District of Columbia suburbs: former Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe and former State Delegate Brian Moran.  The national significance of the race was underscored by the high-octane famosos weighing in for Deeds’ two opponents; former President Bill Clinton campaigned hard for longtime ally McAuliffe and Moran, younger brother of Rep. Jim Moran (D.-Va.), benefited from a major fund-raising event hosted by Ethel Kennedy.

With a record of supporting gun owners and working on exclusively state issues such as transportation, Deeds had little trouble establishing himself as the least liberal of the Democratic contenders. Hailing from rustic Bath County (“closer to West Virginia than Fairfax City,” as the Washington Post put it,  Deeds was the lone candidate who was from outside the Washington, D.C. area and thus had geography working in his favor.  His strong endorsement from the Post three weeks before the balloting fueled considerable last minute money, enthusiasm and momentum for Deeds (who was also the only one of the three to have run statewide before).

As much as Deeds was the “centrist” in the Democratic primary, Republicans make little secret of their intent to paint him as a liberal in the campaign against McDonnell.  In endorsing Deeds, the Post noted that he “courageously voted for a proposal that including raising the state’s gas tax.”

To skeptics who say that Deeds is “too far to the right on social issues,” the Post admonished: “They should look again. Yes, he describes himself as a supporter of the Second Amendment.  He’s willing, however, to put limits on gun ownership when the stakes are highest.”  The Post also hailed the Democratic nominee for “[h]is support for abortion rights and for an amendment to prohibit the Confederate flag emblem from being displayed on state license plates.”  

Few have questioned the credentials of McDonnell as an across-the-board conservative, or the same good-as-Goldwater records of his ticket-mates:  Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling and State Sen. Ken Cuccinelli, the GOP nominee for attorney general.  

“They are a good team and campaign well together,” beamed State Chairman Mullins, “And I’ve been going to meetings where I can sense the enthusiasm just by walking in.  Why, we had nearly 500 people at a county party meeting in Fairfax and they told me that half the folks who showed up were people they had not seen before.  We had 300 people at our Culpepper County meeting and 150 at a breakfast in Virginia Beach.

“This will be the first opportunity to repudiate Barack Obama and the whole country will be watching.”