There is an old axiom about the elections that take place the year after a new president comes to power. The contests for governor of New Jersey and Virginia, people often say, are a referendum of the person sitting in the White House.
And that's true, except when they're not.
And that is probably correct.
In Virginia, it's been even simpler than that. In the last eight gubernatorial elections in the Old Dominion, dating back to 1977, the party of the president has always lost the following year in Virginia. History, at least, portends a victory by Republican Bob McDonnell over Democrat Creigh Deeds.
Of course, there's history and there's history. No one in baseball has ever been up three games to none in the post-season and lost a seven-game series, until it happened. So history only accounts for so much. And today's Virginia is not your father's Virginia. Democrats have won the last two gov races, and in the last two election cycles they have replaced Republican Sens. George Allen (defeated in '06) and John Warner (retired in '08) with two Democrats. Plus, Barack Obama carried the commonwealth last year — the first Democratic presidential candidate to do that since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
Democrats may have felt their streak was going to continue following the June primary. They seemed to have nominated the best of their choices. Instead of former state Delegate Brian Moran, a liberal, or ex-DNC chair Terry McAuliffe, a Clintonista, they chose Deeds, a pragmatist and centrist in the mold of (ex-Gov./now-Sen.) Mark Warner. Deeds carried 10 of Virginia's 11 congressional districts in the primary, and won more than 50 percent in the three-way contest — a far more impressive showing than was expected.
McDonnell, who resigned early in the campaign as state attorney general — he defeated Deeds for that post, back in '05, by fewer than 400 votes — won the GOP gov. nod without opposition. He is a far more polished candidate than the one put forward by the Republicans four years ago, Jerry Kilgore, whose style and thick accent were often dismissed by pols in the know. McDonnell was running a near-flawless, make-no-waves campaign, offering conservative positions while making sure not to alienate moderates (and not turning off his conservative base at the same time).
But all the smoothness and polish in the world didn't prepare him for the front page of the Aug. 30 Washington Post, which revealed, in full detail, a thesis McDonnell wrote back in 1989 that discussed his views about working women in a none-too-flattering light: that feminists were "detrimental" to the "traditional family," and that government policy should favor married couples over "cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators."
McDonnell immediately dismissed the furor, saying he has changed his views in the 20 years since. Deeds says that McDonnell's voting record in the state legislature since 1989 shows that he still maintains an out-of-touch philosophy. Both campaigns upped their focus on women, who represent about 54 percent of Virginia electorate.
For weeks, it seemed to change the race dramatically. Deeds suddenly had the wind at his back. His numbers were improving. Labor was investing in his candidacy. By all accounts, it had become a "Macaca" moment for McDonnell.
I'm not exactly sure what happened in the past month to change that perception, but something has changed. If the thesis was the winning hand the Democrats thought they were dealt, perhaps they overplayed it. Turn on a television and you are bombarded with Deeds commercials blasting McDonnell for his ideology, then and now, always referring back to the thesis. The Republican's views are a legitimate issue, but it seems like Deeds and the Dems had nothing else to say ... or at least that's the impression of someone who watches TV.
McDonnell, for his part, never seemed to panic. He's run a very disciplined campaign. There still remains the question whether he is more out of the mainstream than the majority of the Virginia electorate, or whether his plans on taxes and transportation are better than Deeds'. The Washington Post has certainly made up its mind, as noted by its enthusiastic endorsement of Deeds in the Sunday paper.
The latest polls show McDonnell leading Deeds in the high single digits. The African-American vote that helped Obama carry the state last year is unlikely to be duplicated, and in fact there is some evidence that black voters are less enthused about Deeds than they have for other Democrats in the past.
Obama comes into the state next Tuesday to campaign for his fellow Democrat.