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Virginia's Democratic Primary Six Weeks Away

By Hastings Wyman
Southern Political Report

April 27, 2009

There are only 42 days to go before Virginia Democrats go to the polls on June 9 to choose their nominee to succeed term-limited Gov. Tim Kaine, but the identity of the likely nominee is still clouded in uncertainty.

“It’s a classic low-turnout, low-interest primary,” says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics; “It will all be decided in the final three weeks.” This view is confirmed by a Research 2000 poll taken April 6-8, which showed Moran leading with 24%, McAuliffe second with 19% and Deeds third with 16%; undecided came in with a whopping 41%.

With no runoff in Virginia, the winner in this three-way race is likely to end up with a percentage in the low 40s. While the consensus is that either former Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe or former state Del. Brian Moran will end up with a plurality, no one is willing to rule out the possibility that former state Sen. Creigh Deeds could do an end run around both of them and grab the gold. “It’s very, very close,” says Tidewater attorney and Democratic activist Carter Phillips. “It’s between Moran and McAuliffe, although they could divide Northern Virginia and help Deeds.”

Each of the contenders has strengths and weaknesses. Moran, 49, has the support of most of the state’s Democratic elected officials, especially in the House of Delegates. He also has some pluses from the prominence of his brother, US Rep. Jim Moran (D) of Alexandria. (There are also minuses with this connection, but Brian does not share his brother Jim’s reputation for irascibility.) He is expected to run first among black voters, who account for some 35% of Virginia’s Democrats, and to run well in his home turf of Northern Virginia, with its heavy concentration of Democratic voters. In Northern Virginia, however, he will be competing for votes with McAuliffe.

McAuliffe, 52, “has run an energetic, well-financed, highly staffed campaign,” says Sabato. He is also likely to run well in Northern Virginia, where many voters, because of their proximity to Washington, are familiar with McAuliffe’s record in national politics. He’s also been a quick study of Virginia issues and, despite being tagged an outsider, has yet to be tripped up on a home-state matter. On the down-side, knowledgeable or not, he still has problems associated with his lack of ties to the state. “Before he started running,” says Sabato, “almost nobody knew he even lived in Virginia.” In addition, “There is some clear resentment to McAuliffe among the most loyal Obama supporters,” says Sabato, noting that the former DNC chairman “was very visible for the Clintons… They identify McAuliffe with the old politics, not with the new politics of Obama.” Says Phillips, “The Obama folks can’t stand McAuliffe… He won’t get the black vote.” However, with his large budget and large staff, McAuliffe may be able to make significant inroads into the African-American vote.

Deeds, 51, has the advantage of having come within an eyelash -- 360 votes -- of winning the office of attorney general in 2005 against Bob McDonnell (R), now unopposed for the GOP nod for governor; despite the loss, the race gave Deeds considerable name ID. He is strong among rural voters, though this is a diminishing Democratic constituency. He also has significant support among his fellow state senators. On the negative side, he has no strong ties to the urban and suburban concentrations of Democratic voters; in addition, some Democrats criticize him for losing his 2005 race.

The first two debates on April 19 and April 23 did little to change the race, though some potshots were taken. Creigh, who stayed in the state Senate and was barred from fundraising for 45 days while the legislature was in session, hit McAuliffe and Moran for their fundraising, noting the major out-of-state money coming to McAuliffe and the defense contractors’ contributions to Moran, many of whom have matters before the defense appropriations subcommittee that his brother serves on. Moran brought up Global Crossing, a telecommunications company in which McAuliffe invested $100,000 and later sold much of his stock for some $8 million -- $18 million by another account -- three years before the company collapsed. On policy, however, the three Democrats all favor more funding for education, including expanding pre-school programs, and take a populist economic stance that goes over well, especially among Democrats in this time of recession.

In the money chase, McAuliffe brought in $4.2 million in the first quarter and had $2.4 million cash-on-hand. He has a staff of 100, so his expenses are high. His big-name out-of-state contributors include Hollywood producer Stephen Bing, Bill Clinton, entertainment billionaire Haim Saban and Donald Trump. Moran raised $807,000 -- including $50,000 from brother Jim -- and had $824,000 on hand. And Deeds, who only raised funds for a portion of the quarter, raised $728,000, mostly from in-state sources, and had $1.2 million on hand

While activist Phillips sees a close race in the General Election between any Democrat and McDonnell (R), he’s optimistic about Democratic prospects in the state, forecasting the possibility that his party will gain seats in the House of Delegates. “The culture and demographics of the country are changing and favor the Democrats,” he says.

The General Election in November is likely to be close. The Research 2000 survey showed Republican McDonnell, 54, a former Virginia attorney general, ahead of all three Democrats, albeit by varying margins. McDonnell was leading Moran by 37% to 36%, leading Deeds 38% to 31%, and leading McAuliffe 40% to 33%. The undecideds in all three match-ups were high. McDonnell has also been competitive financially; he raised $2.2 million in the 1st Quarter, with $3.5 million on hand as of March 31.



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