Some of this is blame-shifting. Deeds has made plenty of mistakes that can’t be attributed to the national political environment, including a tendency to make policy proposals that would leave blank space on a note card. But Deeds is correct to complain that “what’s going on in Washington” (translation: the ambitious liberalism of national Democrats) and “the spending” (translation: President Obama’s stimulus package and other expensive plans) and “the noise” (translation: debates on the role of government that Obama has provoked) have undermined the candidate’s appeal in a center-right state. In recent polling, Congress has an approval rating of 21 percent — 10 points lower than the approval rating of Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina. Deeds is running while carrying the burden of a Democratic Congress — and the increasingly heavy burden of Obama.
The Virginia race does not merely reflect national trends; it will help determine those trends. The November election may come at a key moment in the health-care debate, just as conservative Democrats are being asked to take a political risk in support of Obama and reform. A Democratic loss in Virginia would send a message: The risk is greater than you think.
Both Deeds and Obama are now in a difficult political position. At a recent forum, Deeds refused to identify himself as an Obama Democrat — hardly flattering to the president. And Obama seems reluctant to be identified as a Deeds Democrat, having campaigned in the state only once, two months ago. Either Obama realizes that his high-profile involvement would undermine Deeds, or the president doesn’t want to squander his credibility on a losing campaign. Neither explanation is good for Democrats.
In this environment, Deeds — a supporter of gun rights who opposed partial-birth abortion — did what desperate Democrats often do. He attacked his opponent’s social conservatism. Bob McDonnell provided an opening with his graduate school thesis, which argued that the two-parent family is superior to “cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators.” It was difficult for McDonnell to dismiss this formulation as the youthful excess of a 34-year-old. And no politician can afford to alienate the fornicator vote.
After the thesis came to light in late August, the race tightened. But for Deeds’s Democratic campaign consultants — drawn to culture-war controversy as though it were catnip, laced with meth, coated in cocaine — the temptation to overreach was just too much. Realizing the thesis alone was not enough to turn the race, the Deeds campaign asserted it was the “blueprint” for McDonnell’s whole legislative career. Commercials asserted that McDonnell opposed contraception for married couples and insurance coverage for mammograms — charges entirely without merit. Whatever his social views, McDonnell was a pragmatic legislator and attorney general, not an ideological rabble-rouser.
A backlash is building. At a Sept. 17 forum of Northern Virginia business leaders, Deeds’s repeated mentions of the McDonnell thesis were eventually met, according to one reporter, with audible “groans from some in the crowd.” Virginia newspapers are in broad revolt against Deeds’s tactics, employing descriptions such as “flatly dishonest,” “below-the-belt and beyond-the-pale” and “disingenuous and deceitful.” Some editorialists have taken to calling the Democratic candidate “Dirty Deeds” — the kind of schoolyard nickname we hated as children precisely because it stuck. One poll — which showed the race nearly even in mid-September — showed Deeds trailing by nine points two weeks later. A Washington Post poll published Thursday also showed McDonnell nine points ahead.
What lesson can Democrats draw? Clearly, Deeds misjudged the political environment. In a recent poll, the number of Virginians who cited the McDonnell thesis as their most important issue was less than 1 percent. McDonnell talks about jobs and transportation. Deeds talks about McDonnell’s social views. No Virginia Democrat would have picked such a strategy before the campaign began.
But maybe the lesson is even more disturbing for Democrats. In Virginia, neither Obama’s charm nor culture-war attacks seem to be working. Maybe, because of “what’s going on in Washington,” nothing will work.
Michael Gerson’s e-mail address is email@example.com.
(c) 2009, The Washington Post Writers Group