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McDonnell, Picture Perfect

A partisan bow to a flawless campaign, regardless of Deeds' stumbles.


Having worked as chief political strategist for my share of winning Democratic gubernatorial candidates, let me take off my partisan hat and tip it to Gov.-elect Bob McDonnell and his brilliant campaign.

It was a nearly flawless effort, leading his party to an historic sweep, the first double-digit win for all three GOP statewide candidates in Virginia history. Like Arnold the Terminator, these boys mowed down the Virginia Democratic ticket without breaking a sweat.

The Deeds campaign, along with key adviser and the state party chairman, Dickie Cranwell, were raised on country politics in legislative races, but they never understood, as did the people of western Virginia who gave McDonnell his biggest margins, that it takes a lot more than hometown status to win their votes. It is baffling as to why both of them made the same mistake: During the campaign of their last rural Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Mary Sue Terry, they misread rural voters while failing to understand Virginians along the Interstates 95 and 64 corridors.

But for all their preventable mistakes, the larger truth is this: They were outmatched from day one by a superior McDonnell team. Yes, the political landscape this year had certain built-in advantages for the Republicans. But 2009 was not a case of a fait accompli -- the Democrats could have won. Thus the fact that all of them lost, in a record wipeout, suggests a lot more than fate was working on Election Day.

To be sure, it is hard for Democrats to give the Republicans credit for being smarter and shrewder this year. Yet a good political analysis has to be like a doctor looking at his or her own X-rays: you need to accept what is there.

So let's cut to the chase: Bob McDonnell and his family really ran the best photogenic campaign in the history of the state. It was picture perfect for the digital age. Sure, his issue positions were cleverly crafted, a sharp contrast to the bumbling Deeds campaign, which seemed to always figure out a way to put Deeds' platform planks in the worst possible light. Sen. Deeds is far more competent, and far less confused on the issues, than his campaign image. As a legislator, he has been a solid, sensible guy on so many issues: This side of him was never presented to the public.

Yet this year it is also necessary to be brutally honest about the gubernatorial campaign: State issues mattered less in 2009 than at any time in the state's entire two-party era. Why? Because the McDonnell campaign strategy effectively neutralized every advantage Democrats had achieved on their key issue -- education -- which had been the basis of the party's rise to dominance in statewide elections in the 1980s. In 2001, the Warner campaign, on which I worked, used education as a good wedge issue, as did the Kaine campaign in 2005 with the call for pre-K schooling.

Ironically, Deeds had a potentially useful education plank on college scholarships, but his campaign team seemed fixated on using as much money and energy attacking the 1989 graduate-school thesis by then Regent University student Bob McDonnell. This curious polarity has had me thinking these past few weeks.

My conclusion: The key to the 2009 campaign is that the McDonnell team had full confidence in the ability of their guy to “make the sale” as the saying goes, but the same was not true of the Deeds folks. That is to say that the Deeds high command and the leadership of the Virginia Democratic Party did not think their guy was up to the task of projecting a gubernatorial image. To me, this explains their key strategy decisions at crucial times in the contest.

When the consultants and key advisers believe they can only win despite their candidate, what you get is the 2008 Deeds for governor campaign. Likewise, it is also certain that these same consultants and advisers will never admit this publicly.

Does Deeds know this is what led him down the path not taken before in the history of counting votes in Virginia? I don't think so.

It is a genuine shame that such a decent guy was treated so badly by so many people feeding at the trough.

But this fact only helps explain the loss, not the size of the debacle. In that regard, an honest analysis has to credit the McDonnell campaign. Those of us who have to do the heavy lifting on the road to being governor are usually subject to a lot of abuse -- in my case just read, “When Hell Froze Over” -- sometimes out of jealousy, other times due to our mistakes. I have made my share for sure.

So even though I didn't vote for McDonnell, the fact that his top guys deserve credit, not scorn, has a certain redemptive value to it even as losing hurts. It shows, perhaps, that the swelled heads running the Deeds campaign and the Virginia Democratic Party into the ground last week lost because they thought running a statewide gubernatorial campaign was easy.

It isn't. I don't much like to lose. But when I see a rival perform brilliantly, the honorable thing to do is to go up to the net, shake his or her hand, and recognize the achievement. Congrats, Gov.-elect McDonnell. That was one hell of a campaign you ran. But we Democrats will be in better hands the next time.

Paul Goldman is a longtime Democratic strategist who has worked on the gubernatorial campaigns of Doug Wilder, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine.

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