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Associated Press/Photo by Jacquelyn Martin

Words and Deeds

Campaign 2009 | Low turnout among African-Americans and defections by prominent black leaders hurt Democrat Creigh Deeds in Virginia

Issue: "All-American adoption story," Nov. 21, 2009

WASHINGTON-Creigh Deeds is a Democrat from a white town in the Allegheny Mountains. He is a bit gaffe-prone, and Democrats describe him as bland. But he surprised the establishment by defeating celebrity candidates like Terry McAuliffe in the Democratic primary to take the nomination for governor, winning as the moderate among the bunch. Many assumed he would do well against Republican Bob McDonnell one year after Democrat Barack Obama carried the state in his presidential campaign.

Deeds lost to McDonnell in the 2005 race for attorney general by a few hundred votes. He lost again to McDonnell Nov. 3-but this time by about 300,000 votes in the race for governor. McDonnell won by wooing independent voters. But Deeds also lost because he didn't enthuse base voters who provided Democrats with victories in recent presidential, congressional, and gubernatorial races.

The Democrats who seemed most lackluster about Deeds were African-Americans. While 93 percent of voters in black precincts went for Deeds according to the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, turnout in those precincts was down 10 percent from 2005, the last election before Obama dominated the ballot. McDonnell, meanwhile, actively sought support from prominent black Democrats-and got it. While the numbers are still lopsided, McDonnell's inroads could indicate a chink in the armor of black Democratic support.

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The Deeds campaign helped McDonnell by providing an opening. "[Deeds] didn't talk about anything, he just talked about the thesis," said Beverly Lambert, 60, a black lifelong Democrat from Richmond. Deeds harped on McDonnell's 1989 graduate thesis that described working women as "detrimental" to the family. Lambert voted for McDonnell even though she supported Deeds in the primary. "I didn't particularly care about the thesis," she said. "What about transportation?"

Over the summer African-American multimillionaire Sheila Johnson invited McDonnell to her office. Johnson is the co-founder of Black Entertainment Television and part-owner of the WNBA's Washington Mystics, the NBA's Washington Wizards, and the NHL's Washington Capitals, and has given millions to Democratic candidates in the past, including Barack Obama.

She is building a resort in Middleburg, Va., and wasn't getting the help she wanted from Virginia's governor, Tim Kaine, a Democrat to whose campaign she had given almost half a million dollars. Kaine's office wasn't returning her calls, and she said Deeds couldn't provide satisfactory answers to her questions. So she decided to talk to the Republican. She laid a series of questions before McDonnell about his policy proposals on taxes, education, and transportation. His demeanor and business smarts impressed her; he was grateful for the chance to talk.

She called McDonnell back to her office for another talk. She couldn't sleep for days wrestling with whether to support McDonnell-"I was terrified of the backlash I was going to get from Democrats," she said at a dinner in October. But she announced in July that she would be supporting McDonnell.

McDonnell, during his victory speech on the night of Nov. 3, singled out Johnson as "my favorite Democrat."

In September, Doug Wilder, the first black governor of Virginia and in the country, announced he would not be endorsing his Democratic compatriot Deeds. He didn't endorse McDonnell either, but the silence was deafening. When Politico asked Wilder over the summer whether he thought Deeds would have problems attracting black voters, he said, "I do."

Johnson's endorsement and Wilder's non-endorsement didn't spur droves of black voters to support McDonnell, but they demonstrated that black voters weren't lockstep behind Deeds. "It's not like these voters are sitting at home with a score card of elder statesmen and elected officials weighing the endorsements," said Rodd McLeod, a Democratic strategist at MSHC Partners. "I would guess that Obama means a lot more in the minds of black voters than Wilder does."

President Obama did stump for Deeds the week before Election Day, but he didn't do any robocalls on Deeds' behalf. The White House sought to distance itself from the Deeds campaign as defeat became clear. Senior White House advisers spoke anonymously to The Washington Post saying Deeds hadn't followed their advice for his campaign. After the polls closed on Election Day the White House said Obama would not be watching the returns.

To some, the lukewarm black turnout for Deeds and Johnson's support for McDonnell are indicative of a national sentiment. "What we're finding in the conservative community is an awakening that African-Americans are also conservative," said Alveda King, a niece of Martin Luther King Jr. and a prominent African-American in the pro-life movement. "These are things that African-Americans believe in: marriage, family, life, a sensible economy."

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