Creigh Deeds has been in the Virginia House and Senate for 17 years.
But they’re both being outpaced in most polls by a man who has never served a day in public office and, until a few months ago, had few ties to Virginia besides his mailing address.
What would have seemed implausible a year ago, maybe even laughable, doesn’t seem so far-fetched anymore: Terry McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chairman and Clinton First Friend, as Virginia’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee.
That a son of Syracuse turned Washington operator might claim the party’s nomination in the June 9 primary speaks to the sea-change under way in Virginia.
The commonwealth’s political culture has long been accommodating to outsiders, but only those who first establish themselves by service and then by getting to know the tight-knit network of donors, lobbyists and consultants who dominate state politics.
Sen. Mark Warner, for example, overcame a Connecticut upbringing by directing former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder’s history-making 1989 gubernatorial campaign, running the state party and mounting a Senate bid before being elected governor in 2001.
But with transplants flooding not only northern Virginia but other population centers downstate — not to mention the ever-increasing role of money in politics — the time-honored path to statewide office seems to be fading into obsolescence.
It’s a trend that began three years ago when now-Sen. Jim Webb, who like McAuliffe had no previous ties to the Virginia political establishment, took on and defeated Sen. George Allen.
But McAuliffe’s astonishing ascent hasn’t just been a product of money and changing demographics, say Virginia Democrats. It’s been enabled by a golden silence from most of Virginia’s marquee Democratic names — the individuals who could have intervened to decisively sway the race if they had wanted to stop McAuliffe — and facilitated by what many Dems say privately has been lackluster opposition from two accomplished and well-regarded opponents.
These Democratic elites were initially torn between friends Moran and Deeds, then frozen by the entry of McAuliffe, who swooped in and overwhelmed the race with money, staff and chutzpah.
Much like Hillary Clinton with Barack Obama last year, Moran and Deeds haven’t concealed their exasperation at McAuliffe’s audacity — but they also haven’t done much to effectively channel their outrage.
Few expect their resentment will prevent the party from rallying around the eventual nominee, but any festering wounds at all could be enough to sink Democratic chances against likely GOP nominee Bob McDonnell, who leads all three Democrats in head-to-head matchups in the polls.
In what has been a mostly low-profile race, the candidates have a final opportunity to speak to a mass audience on Wednesday in a televised prime-time news special on the primary. WJLA-TV and Google/YouTube have teamed with POLITICO to produce an hour-long program on the choice facing Virginia Democrats. The program will feature interviews with all three Democrats, and include questions submitted from citizens via Google/YouTube. The deadline for submitting questions is Sunday evening.
The program will air on June 3 at 8 p.m. on WJLA (Channel 7), the ABC affiliate in Washington, as well as the ABC affiliates in Richmond (WRIC, Channel 8) and Lynchburg/Roanoke (WSET, Channel 13).
Wilder, who has been in his share of intra-party spats over the years and has not endorsed in this contest, warned that, “If McAuliffe gets the nomination, there will be a formation of Virginians For McDonnell,” a coalition of Democrats and establishment-oriented independents for the GOP nominee.
Wilder’s prediction is echoed in private by oher senior Democrats who believe that Moran, especially, has again and again missed opportunities.
“There’s a growing sense about the Moran campaign that Brian is a very nice guy but he just kind of fell apart when Terry entered the race,” said one prominent Democrat who is a veteran of numerous campaigns.
“Brian, at every turn where he should have been demonstrating strength, has failed,” added Kristian Denny Todd, a Democratic consultant who is close to Webb.
Prompted by the former DNC chairman’s interest in the race, Moran quit the Legislature late last year in large part to free himself from the restrictions on raising money while the General Assembly is in session. But he now admits that, just days before the primary, he doesn’t have the money to get his name out.
Democrats say Moran’s most obvious line of attack against McAuliffe — that he’s entirely reliant on out-of-state money and is trying to buy the election — has been neutralized by his acceptance of cash from defense contractors close to his older brother, Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), who sits on the powerful House Appropriations Committee.
And the hope that some silver bullet of oppo or some blockbuster expose would land and disqualify McAuliffe from the race has, to date, not materialized.
McAuliffe may have been positioned to win even if Moran and Deeds had run flawless races, but at the very least they presented him with an opening.
Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.), the Fairfax freshman who previously ran the commonwealth’s most populous county, credited McAuliffe for having a jobs message that is especially compelling in Virginia’s hardest-hit regions.
But Connolly, who is neutral in the race, also noted that McAuliffe has gained traction because “the other two have been running for the last three years and neither one of them had created a commanding lead.”
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Tidewater-area Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), a longtime fixture in Richmond and then Washington, is also staying out of the primary. But he said many of his supporters are with McAuliffe — who he said is simply “running a much stronger grass roots campaign.”
“Brian and Creigh were looking at it like a marathon and then you had somebody came in and ran it like a very long sprint,” said Del. Jennifer McClellan, a young up-and-comer from Richmond who is also vice-chairwoman of the state party. “And Terry had energy and money to sustain it.”
“Neither Brian nor Creigh hit it the way Mark Warner did in 2001,” observed former Lt. Gov Don Beyer, alluding to the field-clearing effort the former governor put in leading up to his race.
Beyer, yet another party elder who is also staying out this year’s primary, noted that back then, before their rapid ascent, Democrats “were just turning anywhere for a savior. That’s not where we are now. We’re spoiled.”
It’s a commonly expressed sentiment this year — that after winning consecutive governor’s races, flipping both Senate seats and even turning Virginia blue on the presidential level for the first time in 44 years, the party has seemingly maxed out.
The primary has sparked little interest among voters other than party activists, and Democrats worry about what the means for the fall.
“It will be a tough race for any of the Democrats,” said Wilder of the race against McDonnell, who will be formally nominated this weekend.
For hearty Virginia Democrats who never saw a lot of national attention and then suddenly wound up playing a pivotal role in both nominating and electing the nation’s first black president, there is a sense of, "what else is there?"
“We’ve just come off this incredible, life-changing victory” noted Beyer. “So there’s got to be a let-down. I can’t imagine that Virginia Democrats are as hungry now.”
And with Democrats in control in Washington and Richmond there is now far less to run against.
For that reason, strategists in both parties view the race as a test of whether the national momentum the party has enjoyed in the past two election cycles can be sustained now that they dominate Washington.
Recent state history suggests otherwise: Since 1976, the party that has won the White House has lost the Virginia governor's race the next year.
“The wind that was at our backs these last four years has died down a little,” said Connolly, lamenting the “very muted interest” in the primary. “Bush is gone and the heat on the war in Iraq has abated,” he said, citing two of the issues that helped power Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008.
And there was no heir apparent to term-limited Gov. Tim Kaine, though Moran, the former House Democratic Caucus Leader, and Deeds, who barely lost the attorney general’s race to McDonnell four years ago, had traveled extensively to lay down a marker.
Enter McAuliffe, who had demonstrated no interest in statewide politics until last August, when he began wooing the Virginia delegation to the Democratic National Convention.
He spent much of the fall in the state stumping for Obama, made his intentions formal soon after and then quickly took command of a race that his rivals expected would be fought between the two of them.
“He went up on TV in February and Brian and Creigh just didn’t have the money to do that,” said McClellan.
McAuliffe has won little affection and no endorsements from the state’s Democratic top officials — Kaine, both of Virginia’s Democratic senators, much of the House delegation and such high-profile figures as Wilder, Beyer, former Gov. Gerald Baliles and former Sen. Charles Robb have all stayed on the sidelines — but their silence has served more as a rebuke to the two establishment candidates who failed to make a case for them to weigh in.
Some are in positions now that make it difficult to engage in politics but Beyer, who in his case cited friendships with all three candidates, also said that others “kept their powder dry to see how the primary went.”
And, Todd said, when it became clear that Moran couldn’t keep pace financially and wasn’t doing damage to McAuliffe, many establishment types decided it was better to just wait for the winner.
“If their candidate loses, whoever is governor will never forget,” explained Wilder, with a laugh, of the reluctance to expend political capital for something that was far from a sure thing.
In McDonnell, the Republicans have a candidate with ties to the two most populous regions of the state — Northern Virginia and the Tidewater area — who is focusing on kitchen table issues and downplaying his Christian conservative roots. Wilder called him a “very attractive candidate.”
But Connolly said the “raw numbers” of people who have become reliable Democratic voters in the state offer the party a modest advantage, regardless of the outcome of the primary.
And, despite some of the baggage he carries because of his past business dealings, those same contacts and investments would better position McAuliffe to finance a competitive race than Moran or Deeds.
It may seem unlikely that a man called The Macker, a garrulous newcomer who revels especially in expounding on the renewable energy potential of chicken waste, would take the office once held by Harrisons, Randolphs, Lees and Byrds.
Then again, it has shocked many that he’s even gotten this far.
“I have to confess to you,” whispered Wilder. “During the Obama campaign last fall, somebody from the media asked me, ‘Well, wat about McAuliffe?’ And I said, 'Who — and for what?'”