Tomorrow, Virginia's Democratic primary voters will go to the polls and pick their gubernatorial candidate. If current polling is accurate, state Sen. Creigh Deeds--the moderate/conservative in the race--will triumph over former state Delegate Brian Moran (a fellow veteran of the state legislature), and former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, the party fundraising all-star and longtime Clinton friend who was once the frontrunner in this race.
The winner will go on to face Republican Bob McDonnell in November.
Observers will look to the VA governor's race as a barometer of political sentiment in an off-year election; they will examine it as a tea leaf for the 2010 midterms, noting the significance of Virginia as a swing state, formerly in Republican grips but turning bluer in past years and falling, finally, in President Obama's column in November.
Turnout will likely be low tomorrow--the Virginian-Pilot's Julian Walker estimates fewer than 10 percent of the state's 5 million-plus registered voters will turn out--so I'm not sure how much we can actually glean from the results. But, if nothing else, it will reflect the preferences of those who show up: Virginians politically active enough to vote in a Democratic primary.
(Virginia does not register voters by party, so tomorrow's contest won't be restricted to Democrats.)
So far, it looks like those people are more purple than blue. Deeds was endorsed by The Washington Post as the moderate in the race, a supporter of the second amendment unopposed to offshore oil drilling with restrictions.
Moran is seen as the urban liberal; McAuliffe is a national-level political operative with impressive charisma and energy. His voluble affability not only made him an effective campaigner for Hillary Clinton in 2008, it has earned him good relationships with big-time Demcoratic donors over the years, and he had raked in $6.96 million--nearly double Moran's $3.7 million and even farther above Deeds' $2.83 million--as of the latest financial filings.
About three quarters of that came from out of state. Donors in Los Angeles and Chicago donated hundreds of thousands; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, McAuliffe's largest donor, gave over $600,000.
(This has come with a price: Moran and Deeds, for their part, have attacked McAuliffe for his fundraising sources.)
But it's Deeds, trailing his competitors in cash, who has surged ahead in recent polls:
Polls were close right up to last week, with the three candidates neck and neck (and neck); but two very recent from Public Policy Polling and SurveyUSA have reported a surge for the moderate Deeds.
What a Deeds win would show us is that Democratic voters in Virginia are more moderate than liberal, with a conservative streak on issues like gun rights and offshore drilling.
It would also show that a Washington Post endorsment goes a long way--Deeds' poll numbers shot up from the teens (and occasional mid-20s) after the May 22 endorsement. It would also prove that you can raise $7 million and still not win a gubernatorial primary.
In a low-turnout election, election-day get-out-the-vote efforts are key--and McAuliffe's money and staff could turn out to be effective come tomorrow. According to Virginia-based political scientists Larry Sabato and Carl Tobias, election-day canvassing could be the most important factor.
Tea leaves aside, it will be interesting to see what happens.
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