The Daily Telegraph of London, writing back across the pond, declares that President Obama has become “a liability” to Creigh Deeds in Virginia’s governor’s race.
I think that’s a part of the story, but far from all of it.
Since the beginning of the year, Obama’s approval rating in the state has steadily declined, although the Post had it looking healthy last week. During the summer, it was below 50 percent, decreasing Obama’s usefulness as a campaign proxy. While Democrats have won in recent years, Mark Warner and Jim Webb were careful to run as really moderate, really pragmatic Democrats; the perception of those men clashes wildly with the decisions we have seen from a Congress run by Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid so far this year.
In retrospect, Democratic wins in 2005, 2006, and 2008 appear heavily driven by frustration and exhaustion with Pres. George W. Bush. Once he departed the stage, the Democrats were judged not by contrast, but by their own merits. Democrat Tim Kaine, the current governor, won in 2005 by running on Warner’s coattails; Kaine has generated no positive buzz to offer his potential Democratic successor. Kaine has been a bland, underachieving disappointment.
But Deeds has some pretty striking weaknesses for a candidate. Besides his bouts with inarticulateness, Deeds entered the general election with a record as a state legislator that is pretty “meh,” a particularly weak geographic base from which to run a statewide campaign, and a pretty vague agenda. He responded to bad polls by going negative, and then by going negative again. He and his team really seemed to think spotlighting Bob McDonnell’s thesis from 20 years ago was going to be sufficient.
The Virginia GOP takes my criticism well, so I’ll reiterate that I think they’re wrong when they try to argue that Deeds is a liberal soul behind a moderate façade. I think he’s an ambitious, craven, unprincipled soul behind . . . well, an ambitious, craven, unprincipled façade (which doesn’t really make it a façade, I guess). I think the reason Creigh Deeds is so often tripped up when trying to explain what he’ll do on taxes, or transportation plans, or education, or gay rights, or so many other issues is that he doesn’t really care that much about the specifics. He wants to be governor, the details can wait.
In the right campaign environment, voters notice that.