The primary results were a brutal repudiation of the most famous man in the race: former Democratic National Committee Chairman and Clinton family friend Terry McAuliffe, who until recent days was widely seen as in command of a close race.
In the end, he wasn’t in command, and it was not close. Deeds, who is from tiny Bath County and owns a mule named Harry S Truman, beat McAuliffe and former state Del. Brian Moran by a roughly 2-1 margin.
Deeds won the right to take on state Attorney General Robert McDonnell, a Republican who is trying to reverse a trend in which the traditionally conservative Old Dominion has voted for Democrats twice in a row this decade.
The contest comes freighted with personal drama: Four years ago, Deeds lost the attorney general’s race to McDonnell by just 323 votes.
It likely will also carry a national echo. Virginia governors races, like New Jersey’s, always attract attention from political devotees because they are one of the few games in town in odd-numbered years.
In this case, the Virginia race will also be a test of whether the political tide that swept in a Democratic congressional majority in 2006 and gave Barack Obama the presidency in 2008 still retains its power.
The current governor, Tim Kaine, is also Obama’s hand-picked DNC chairman, and he will be working hard to avoid an electoral black eye in his home state.
But Republicans nationally are hoping that the ambitious agenda of Obama’s first year will start a backlash against one-party rule in Washington that will have its first rumblings in a purple-state like Virginia. If so, the result might spell trouble for first- and second-term House Democrats who won in conservative districts over the past few years.
Tuesday’s primary was relatively low-profile until recent days, but it offered plenty of excitement for political watchers, in part because a low-turnout primary and relatively few reliable public polls made it hard to know what was going on.
In retrospect, it’s clear a late surge was vaulting Deeds — once viewed as in the weakest of the three candidates — to a commanding victory.
Although a multitude of factors clearly played a role, Deeds falls in the tradition of Gerald R. Ford, who after Watergate adorned satirical classified advertising posters that read, “I got my job through The Washington Post.”
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Deeds, who lives a four-hour drive from the Washington Beltway, won a surprising endorsement from the Post editorial page writers, who were not impressed by the two Northern Virginians in the race.
In a primary process where only committed activists tend to vote, the endorsement apparently helped give the otherwise obscure Deeds a second-look in the vote-rich Washington suburbs, and helped bolster his claim that he would be the most electable Democrat in the fall.
Nearly as striking as Deeds’s starburst was McAuliffe’s fizzle. He had the most famous name, the most money to buy ads and organization, the most support from organized labor and by far the most dynamic personality.
But, in a stock phrase of political operatives, sometimes the dogs just won’t eat the dog food.
That seemed to be the case with Virginia voters, who historically have been welcoming only to candidates who pay their dues by serving in lower state offices like lieutenant governor — as was the case with Kaine — or by long service in appointed positions or an earlier electoral bid, as was the case with former Democratic governor Mark Warner, who now sits in the U.S. Senate.
Tuesday’s results were anothe dent in the Clinton brand. Bill Clinton came to Virginia to campaign for his close friend McAuliffe. But he had no success in rallying sufficient numbers of Democrats — particularly African-Americans — to embrace a man who lived in a Northern Virginia suburb for 16 years but had no deep history with the state’s politics.
Many of McAuliffe’s aides, including campaign manager Mike Henry, were veterans of Hillary Clinton’s losing presidential campaign, and they now have two examples in two years of the limits of celebrity and political muscle to influence an electorate in the mood for someone else.
The question now is how Deeds, with his rural twang and soft-edged personality will play against McDonnell, who has previously shown himself to be a polished political performer who runs well in the suburbs.
Deeds is conservative on some issues, particularly gun control, but supports abortion rights. McDonnell projects a moderate profile which Democrats say masks a more ideological record on abortion and other social issues.
Deeds opposed closing a state gun show loophole law before reversing course and supporting it following the Virginia Tech massacre. And after voting to put a gay marriage ban on the ballot, Deeds indicated during the primary that he was a “work in progress” on the issue.
Beyond these hot buttons, the race promises to revolve around the classic Virginia issues — improving education and fixing a glutted road network — combined with, in a down economy, who would more effective in creating new jobs.
“Tonight, Virginia, we move into the general election, where Virginia either moves forward in the legacy of Mark Warner and Tim Kaine or backward toward the disastrous economic and social agenda of Bob McDonnell and George W. Bush," Deeds said.
Both McAuliffe and Moran gave concession speeches heartily endorsing Deeds.
“It may not have turned out the way we wanted, but it was quite a ride,” said McAuliffe, as ebullient in defeat as he was on the campaign trail. “It has been, I gotta say, one of the greatest experiences of my life.”
Among those not cheering the result were many Republicans, who had assumed they would be running against McAuliffe. At the GOP convention earlier this month, speakers focused their fire on him, and some believed he would be easy to portray as a slick interloper facing questions about his past as a businessman and political fund-raiser.
Now Republicans must recalculate.
Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia professor and veteran analyst of the state’s politics, said Deeds would be difficult to peg as any different from the commonwealth’s previous two mainstream Democratic governors, Warner and Kaine.
“A moderate, rural-based Democrat who is clearly in the Warner-Kaine mold fits the new Virginia quite well,” said Sabato. “If anything, Deeds may be somewhat more conservative than Warner and Kaine, which makes him a tough target for the GOP.”
The key to statewide victory for Virginia Republicans is to pile up large margins in the state’s south and west to offset the more moderate or liberal-leaning precincts in the “urban crescent” — the population center of the state, stretching from the Washington suburbs down to Richmond and then over toward the Tidewater region. And while Deeds may not win some of these conservative outposts, he could shave McDonnell’s margin.
On the other hand, candidate skills sometimes matter more than political geography.
“McDonnell is a better, more polished media candidate than Deeds, too, and that matters especially with suburban and exurban voters,” said Sabato.
Jonathan Martin, Kathryn McGarr and Zachary Abrahamson contributed.