Like most races for governor, the 2009 campaign in Virginia will revolve around the qualities of the candidates and statewide issues that matter to voters. Because a comparison of the issues and candidate qualities suggests that neither candidate has an advantage, larger forces may be more critical to the outcome of the election.
Ultimately, the race will boil down to a contest of momentum versus history. While Democrats have the momentum that goes with successive victories in statewide elections, Republicans have history on their side. Unless President Obama's shrinking approval ratings recover or some unforeseen event shakes up the campaign, history is likely to repeat itself.
Both parties have nominated quality candidates. Creigh Deeds, the Democrat, a state senator from Bath County and previous candidate for statewide office in 2005, won a convincing primary challenge against two well-funded rivals. Many political analysts believe Deeds gives the Democrats the best chance to hold onto the governor's office. A moderate from a rural county and a district with a diverse constituency, Deeds seems to fit the mold of successful statewide Democratic candidates: acceptable to the party's progressive voters but capable of attracting conservative Democrats and Independents.
On the other hand, Bob McDonnell, the Republican, a former delegate from Virginia Beach and attorney general, is considered the best possible GOP candidate. A well-spoken and likable conservative who narrowly defeated Deeds in the 2005 attorney general's race, McDonnell has the ability to mobilize the GOP base and appeal to suburban voters who have drifted from the party in recent elections.
Of course, as the campaign moves forward, one of the candidates may emerge as the more compelling leader. But at the moment, with respect to personal qualities, we think the race is a draw: Both men are solid, acceptable candidates. McDonnell may have more personal appeal and a better chance to mobilize his party's base, but Deeds is closer to the average voter in terms of ideology.
Though the economy is probably the most pressing problem facing the state, the race lacks a defining issue that gives one candidate a major advantage. Deeds wants voters to focus on abortion, education and his ability to carry on a legacy of good governance established by Democratic Govs. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine. But it's difficult to see how these issues will overcome the sluggish economy and Kaine's sagging approval ratings.
McDonnell's focus is on bread-and-butter issues: job growth, a transportation plan, off-shore drilling and opposition to unionization. He has the advantage in the current recession, particularly if he can convince voters that he is more likely than Deeds to keep taxes low. McDonnell will need to counter charges that he's too culturally conservative for the mainstream voter. His economic proposals, meanwhile, are not distinctively preferable to those offered by Deeds.
While Deeds may have the edge on cultural issues and perhaps management of state government, McDonnell appears to have the advantage concerning the economy and possibly on how to fix the state's transportation problems. On statewide issues, the campaign may eventually turn in favor of one of the candidates, but at this point no single issue position or policy idea gives either candidate the edge.
Thus, the race for governor is likely to come down to which of the greater forces — momentum or history — wins. Momentum favors Deeds. Democratic candidates have won the past two governors' races and the past two U.S. Senate races. Of course, the most impressive gain was President Obama's victory in 2008, the first time a Democratic presidential candidate won the state since 1964. An influx of progressive voters and a shift in voter sentiments, particularly in suburban areas, have made it hard for a conservative Republican to carry the state.
The cumulative effect of recent voting patterns favoring Democrats is confirmed by polling data, which indicate that a plurality of Virginia voters consider themselves Democrats. According to election-day exit polls, from 2004 to 2008 the percentage of Virginians who identified themselves as Democrats increased from 35 percent to 39 percent, while the percentage of people who identified themselves as Republicans declined from 39 percent to 33 percent. A Gallup Poll taken earlier this year also showed that more Virginians consider themselves Democratic than Republican. The Democratic Party is strong and Deeds can draw from a databank of newly registered voters. The question is whether Deeds can capitalize on his party's momentum.
In order to do so, Deeds must defeat forces of history, which favor McDonnell. As one of only two states that elect governors in odd years, Virginia is an early test of voter sentiment about the direction of the nation after a presidential election. To some extent, the Virginia governor's race serves as a referendum on the president's first year in office. Because a new president's honeymoon usually wears off by November of the first year and the party that lost the presidential election is hungry to make a comeback, the candidate of the party opposite the president normally wins. Not since 1973 has the candidate of the president's party won the off-year gubernatorial election in Virginia. In that case, Mills Godwin, a former governor and reluctant Republican nominee, barely defeated Democratic Lt. Gov. Henry Howell.
Given the state of the economy and declining approval ratings for Barack Obama, both nationally and in Virginia, it's no wonder McDonnell has a lead in recent polls among registered and likely voters. According to a recent Washington Post poll, Obama's endorsement of Deeds helps him among Democrats, but not among Republicans or Independents. Moreover, as history would predict, Republicans are more anxious to vote than Democrats. The question is whether McDonnell can avoid a major gaffe that will put his candidacy at risk or whether Obama can recover enough positive feelings among the voters to allow Deeds to alter the course of history. S
Daniel Palazzolo is professor of political science and director of the Center for Government and Policy at the University of Richmond. Karin Eastby and Andrew Slater are undergraduate students at UR.
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