Virginia Democrats chose their nominee for governor this week, and the unexpected choice has set off a huge debate about what the results mean for the party going into the 2010 midterm elections.
The answer may be "not as much as we think." But it's hard to convince political junkies that the results of one election do not reveal deep and important truths about the next. Working from that premise, the Virginia results may suggest that Democrats have reason to worry. In fact, the stronger evidence is that the party is making choices as sophisticated as it did in 2008.
The bad news is that the invigorated Virginia Democratic Party may have hit the snooze button after finally beating the Republicans in a presidential election for the first time since 1964. Only 6 percent of eligible voters showed up for the gubernatorial primary, and then they chose a candidate based on "electability." For Democrats, that generally means a centrist candidate whom independents will find attractive and whose conservative positions Republicans will find hard to caricature.
The electability argument has a long history of producing mush-mouthed candidates with muddled positions who come across as trying to be a little bit Republican. Generally, they lose, because why go with someone who's a little Republican when you can have the genuine article?
But that may not be what happened in Virginia on Tuesday. Another reading is that voters rejected the conventional wisdom in much the same way they did with Obama when he faced Clinton in the primary last year. The night's big drama was the poor performance of former Democratic National Committee Chair Terry McAuliffe. With the McAuliffe campaign, Virginians got a repeat of the Clinton primary run last year. It was big, with a lot of money and many presumptions of its own success. Nimble, agile, and new did not describe it. And so, Virginians rejected that in favor of something else.
Kristian Denny Todd, a Democratic consultant told Politico that she has seen this before in Virginia, a state that is slowly trending Democratic due to an influx of liberal voters in the Washington suburbs. But those voters don't always go for the most liberal candidate.
Referencing her then-client Sen. Jim Webb, Todd told Politico, "These are the same Democratic activists in Northern Virginia who nominated somebody who had been a Republican four months prior because they thought he was the guy that could win."
Creigh Deeds, the little-known Bath County state senator who won on Tuesday, is tasked with trying to keep the governor's mansion Democratic for a third consecutive term. Since Virginia governors cannot succeed themselves, voters who want to either reward or punish an incumbent can only stick to the current governor's parties or switch. The last time Virginia had three Democratic governors in succession was from 1982 to 1994. The streak ended decisively when then-Congressman George Allen overcame an almost 30-point deficit in the polls to beat Mary Sue Terry, the Democratic attorney general. Many saw in the results of that November election the beginnings of the tide that would doom Democrats nationally in 1994. That same month, New Jersey also elected a Republican governor, Christie Todd Whitman, and New York City voted for a Republican mayor named Rudy Giuliani.
Ultimately, we don't know how Deeds will fare this November; he lost a close race for attorney general three years ago to Bob McDonnell, the man he will face in the election. Writing in The Washington Post, E.J Dionne sees "troubling news for Democrats" in Virginia's anemic turnout. Dionne reminds us that the Obama victory was driven by young people. Now, the question is whether young people will turn out for someone other than Obama.
Dionne quotes pollster Geoff Garin as saying, "One of the questions coming out of last year is whether the new voters have been Obamacized or politicized. There's a lot of evidence that a lot of the Democrats who were extremely enthusiastic and energized in 2008 were really focused on Obama as opposed to politics more broadly."
But if all Democrats have to worry about next year is how to get their voters motivated, they will be in a much better position than Republicans, who seem to be in need of an entire party overhaul.
A GOP win in November will be read as a step toward recovery for the party, but Republicans have serious problems to overcome before they can be consistently competitive again.
McDonnell, the GOP nominee, is a traditional cut-taxes, oppose-abortion conservative who will try to tie Deeds to Obama and his "big spender" policies, especially if there is any sense of a growing public dissatisfaction that Obama's proposals are not producing results fast enough.
But this approach has not been especially effective for them lately. Another challenge for Republicans: Deeds has already signaled that he intends to use the same playbook that has worked so well for Democrats over the last four years. At his victory speech, he said, "The general election will be a very stark choice of whether Virginia continues to move forward in the tradition of [Sen. Mark] Warner and [Gov. Tim] Kaine, or move backwards with the disastrous economic and social agenda of Bob McDonnell and George Bush."
Running against George W. Bush worked well for Democrats in 2006 and 2008. What's to say it won't again in 2010?
Correction: Bob McDonnell's name was previously misspelled.