Blue Dog Blues: Creigh Deeds' Loss Should Have Appalachian Democrats Nervous

Republican Bob McDonnell's bludgeoning of Democrat Creigh Deeds in the Virginia governor's race last Tuesday has spurred a frenzy of speculation about national Democrats' problems heading into the 2010 midterm elections. While it is a bit of a stretch to say that major revelations can be drawn from a race in a state that has a long history of voting against the incumbent president's party in statewide elections, and where 56 percent of voters said that their opinion of Obama did not factor in to their vote, some important details can be drawn from Deeds' loss -- ones that should worry Democrats, especially rural Blue Dogs, heading into the upcoming election year.

Deeds did much poorer than his Democratic predecessors, outgoing Gov. Tim Kaine and former Gov. (now Sen.) Mark Warner, in most of the state. Democrats should be concerned about low turnout of core constituencies including minorities and younger voters (these groups often vote at much lower rates in off-year elections). They also must worry about independent white voters, especially men, who had helped Democrats retake the House and Senate in 2006 and had given Obama a decent proportion of support in 2008 but largely abandoned Deeds in areas like Fairfax and Loudon counties in Northern Virginia. Where Deeds got absolutely crushed, though, was in Appalachian Virginia -- the western and southwestern part of the state. This should concern national Democrats for three reasons. First, Deeds is an Appalachian Virginian himself, yet outside of his home base of Bath County and next-door Alleghany County, he was beaten silly in his home region, losing by proportions of 2-1 and 3-1 in many counties.

Second, rural Appalachia has been strongly resistant to the charms of President Obama and has been moving away from Democrats in general in the last decade. As Emory Professor Merle Black, an expert on Southern politics, explains, "Deep South white Protestant voters are very individualistic in terms of what they like and what they don't like. Basically, you're on your own -- it's your responsibility to provide for yourself and your family. It's not the government's. These Appalachian whites are very comfortable with inequalities."

While Obama improved on Sen. John Kerry's numbers in most of the country, his share of the vote in the area stretching from western Pennsylvania down the Appalachian ridge and out through the edge of the Deep South, in Oklahoma, Arkansas, and East Texas, was significantly lower. In fact, 29 of the 42 congressional districts where Obama's share of the vote declined from Kerry's are found in this Appalachian belt. Greater meaning can be drawn from this once one looks at where the other districts are. Two of these are in culturally conservative, Cajun and largely Catholic southern Louisiana, where the population shifts caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita make it difficult to compare populations in the two elections. Every one of the other nine districts in this category were influenced by home-state pride: McCain outperformed Bush in three districts in Arizona, while Obama saw a slight drop-off from John Kerry's numbers in six Massachusetts districts. If these atypical districts are removed from consideration, fully 29 of the 31 districts that moved rightward in the 2008 election are found in greater Appalachia. Of the 49 Democratic congressmen in districts John McCain won in 2008, nearly 40 of them come from Appalachia or areas largely settled and influenced by Appalachian whites and bear the marks of Scots-Irish heritage.

Southwestern Virginia is not only culturally similar to these endangered Democrats' districts, it is also coal territory, like many parts of Appalachia. Others, like Chet Edwards in Texas, are oil-patch Democrats where climate change legislation is also looked at suspiciously. The Democrats' push for cap-and-trade legislation has put many of these Blue Dogs in a tough spot. Many vocally opposed Waxman-Markey in the House, recognizing the political risk of supporting such a bill. Others, like Virginia Rep. Rick Boucher, helped moderate the bill, pushing for concessions for coal in exchange for their votes.

It is likely that many of these Democrats will survive, and many in these marginal districts have vocally opposed important pieces of the Democratic agenda like cap-and-trade, the stimulus and health care. Many House Democrats also have built up good will and name recognition at home: people like Boucher and Rep. Mike Ross (D-AR) are well-known in their districts, and even if they take some nuanced or unpopular stances, enough of their constituents may give them the benefit of the doubt to keep them in office. Finally, unlike in 1994, we have yet to see a large wave of Democratic retirements in vulnerable seats. Well-known, individualistic incumbents are much more likely to survive than newcomers like Deeds, who can be defined by their opponents as being closer to the national Democratic beliefs than they may be.

Still, Deeds' Appalachian drubbing shows that even if Democrats take a nuanced approach to some of these pieces of legislation, like Boucher did with climate change legislation and Ross and many other Blue Dogs have with health care, they could still be caught by an energized conservative base. Deeds's drubbing in Appalachia came after McDonnell ran ads attacking him for supporting cap-and-trade. Deeds went as far as to run ads stating he did not support the House climate bill and criticizing McDonnell for distorting his record. It was not enough. Other Blue Dogs must be nervous this loss will become a trend in one year's time.