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Swinging back red

Politics | Republicans see Bob McDonnell's campaign and victory in Virginia as a blueprint for future races

WASHINGTON-President Obama was the first Democratic candidate for president to win Virginia since 1964, but that tidal wave of support didn't course into Tuesday's governor's race. Republican Bob McDonnell handily defeated Democrat Creigh Deeds with about 60 percent of the vote in what conservatives characterized as a referendum on the White House and liberals characterized as an unlucky series of events.

Obama's approval rating of over 50 percent in Virginia, however, calls into question the assertion that the vote is a referendum on his presidency. In the final weeks of the campaign, Deeds began airing ads of Obama praising him, and the president tried to rally voters last week. But White House officials also anonymously criticized Deeds, and Obama never did robocalls for the candidate, perhaps sensing the impending loss. The loss could reflect more on Democratic National Committee chair Tim Kaine, the exiting governor of Virginia, than on Obama.

McDonnell, who defeated Deeds in the 2005 race to become the state's attorney general, ran a slick campaign that was relatively free of gaffes and focused on the economy. Deeds, on the other hand, earned the reputation of running a negative campaign for his attack ads on McDonnell's 1989 graduate thesis that portrayed workingwomen as "detrimental" to families.

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A Washington Post poll indicated that Deeds' attacks on McDonnell's thesis didn't stick, with women saying they trusted McDonnell more than Deeds to handle women's issues.

"[Deeds] didn't talk about anything, he just talked about the thesis," said Beverly Lambert, 60, who is black and a lifelong Democrat from Richmond. She mailed in her absentee vote for McDonnell even though she supported Deeds in the primary. "I didn't particularly care about the thesis," she said. "What about transportation?"

Deeds had a lot going against him aside from failing to articulate his distinct platform early on. He's not the type of charismatic candidate who gets out the vote-many solid Democrats registered apathy about him, which showed through his fundraising, which fell short of McDonnell's.

In addition to electing Obama last year, the state has voted in two consecutive Democratic governors and two Democratic senators. After all that political effort-door-knocking, fundraising, phone calling-the Democratic base this year had a little less zeal. Voters aren't happy about the state of the economy, either. McDonnell also cut into the reliably Democratic population center in Northern Virginia because he's from that area.

While the governor's race focused on state issues, Republicans saw it as a potential blueprint for races down the road. Stay positive and let Democrats "kill themselves," one Republican strategist said, adding the need to focus on issues that concern independent voters, like jobs, and avoid direct attacks on President Obama.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a political lightning rod, was notably absent from the Virginia race, while other Republican hotshots like Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee stumped for McDonnell. Those men don't induce the negative reaction among independent voters that Palin does. McDonnell didn't take Palin up on her offer to stump for him, but on Monday, the organization Virginia Faith and Values sponsored robocalls from Palin to Virginia voters telling them to "vote their values." McDonnell's campaign quickly said they had nothing to do with the calls and didn't know they would be going out.

Following closely on McDonnell's coattails, Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling won re-election over Democrat Jody Wagner, and fellow party member Kenneth Cuccinelli won the attorney general race over Democrat Steve Shannon.

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD Magazine from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.


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