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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Early Virginia Gubernatorial Preview

The marquee off-year political contest of 2009 is very likely to be Virginia’s gubernatorial race. Yes, New Jersey will also have a gubernatorial contest in which incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine could get a serious challenge, probably from former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie, generally considered the strongest Republican in the race. But Virginia’s proximity to the chattering classes of Washington; the Democratic national party chairmanship of outgoing Gov. Tim Kaine; the intense scrutiny of VA last year as the classic purple-to-blue state; and media fascination with Terry McAuliffe’s gubernatorial bid; will probably combine to make the Commonwealth race a big national political obsession.
At RealClearPolitics today, Sean Trende offers a decent primer on the VA race, with lots of historical detail on the state’s politics going back to the nineteenth century. My main quibble with Trende’s analysis is his implicit assumption that discontent over the economy or the state’s fiscal condition will hurt the incumbent party in Washington and Richmond. It’s entirely possible, even in conservative but hard-hit parts of the state like the Southside, that voters will not warm to a national or state GOP that seems to be telling them that pleas for government assistance represent attempted robbery or a desire for welfare dependency. And that’s why I am also less certain than Trende that GOP candidate Bob McDonnell will be able to largely ignore his party’s rural base and aggressively pursue suburban votes elsewhere.
This is another way of saying that we don’t know yet whether the national repudiation of Republicans in 2006 and 2008 represented a temporary “throw-the-bums-out” reaction or the beginnings of a pro-Democratic realignment. But I wouldn’t be real confident about assuming that recent history tells you everything you need to know about the standing of the two parties in various parts of Virginia today.
Trende’s assessment of the candidates is well-informed, including his suggestion that the likely-to-get-nasty competition between the two Democratic candidates from NoVa, McAuliffe and Brian Moran, could either create an opening for the third candidate, Creigh Deeds, or force him from the race altogether. His assessment of the sole Republican candidate, McDonnell, is also interesting:

McDonnell avoids many of the problems that have beset previous Republican nominees. But there is one potential problem – he is a bona fide social conservative. McDonnell will likely be attacked for his law degree from Regent University (founded by Pat Robertson), and comments he made while he was a Delegate to the effect that anyone engaging in oral or anal sex could be found in violation of Virginia’s “crimes against nature” law (he also claimed not to remember whether he had ever violated the law)…
The comment about the crimes against nature law could affect him much as Allen’s macaca comment or Kilgore’s death penalty ad affected them – by becoming wedges between the Republicans and their Northern Virginia base.

Yeah, I don’t think it will be too long before every late-night comic in the world has some high-profile fun with McDonnell’s 2003 comment that he doesn’t really recall whether he’s ever violated the state’s sodomy laws. And he’s not well positioned ideologically to claim that this is a “private” or “family” matter.
Unless McDonnell tries or is forced to make the campaign about cultural issues, the economic and fiscal situation, and the condition of the two parties in VA at present, will likely determine the race, against any of the Democrats currently running. Yes, the national media will try to make it all a referendum on Barack Obama, and that idea could cut in different directions among different Virginia voters. But as Trende concludes, the race begins as a toss-up, and the positive omen for Virginia Democrats is that they’ve won all but a few of the very close statewide races in Virginia in recent years.

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