Creigh Deeds wins Virginia primary

In a come-from-behind victory, Deeds beats Terry McAuliffe for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

By Mike Madden

Published June 10, 2009 1:10AM (EDT)

The Virginia governor's race will have a retro feel to it this fall.

But it won't be making people think of the Clinton era. Terry McAuliffe, Bill and Hillary Clinton's biggest booster over the years, got trounced in tonight's primary by Creigh Deeds, a state senator from Bath County, on the state's border with West Virginia. Deeds racked up such a huge margin that the Associated Press called the race barely an hour after polls closed. With nearly 92 percent of the vote tallied, Deeds had about 49 percent of the total, with McAuliffe at 26 percent and former state House of Delegates member Brian Moran at 24 percent.

Instead, the governor's race between Deeds and Republican Bob McDonnell will be a rematch of the state's 2005 attorney general campaign, in which McDonnell beat Deeds by 323 votes — out of nearly 2 million cast. Expect both national parties to dump plenty of money into the state, even though the implications for the 2010 elections and beyond are mostly overhyped.

It was a remarkable victory for Deeds, who wasn't that well-known outside his geographic base before the race began, who didn't start advertising in the expensive Washington TV market until late, and who was believed to have the weakest field operation for getting the vote out today of the three candidates. McAuliffe was ahead by as much as 14 points in some polls only a few weeks ago. But in a very low-turnout primary — only about 5.4 percent of registered voters cast ballots, though the registered voter total includes people who identify as Republicans — Deeds was able to win nonetheless. He surged over the last couple of weeks, helped along by Moran's decision to go negative on McAuliffe and by a surprise endorsement from the Washington Post, even though Deeds was the only one of the three candidates who isn't from Northern Virginia's Washington suburbs. Deeds focused on traffic, jobs, a basic good government competence and a down-home authenticity in his messaging.

The strength of his win may be a sign of trouble for the GOP, as it shouldn't be too hard for Virginia Democrats to unify behind their nominee. Deeds was ahead in 10 of the state's 11 congressional districts with about 92 percent of the vote counted — including the 8th District, which Moran's brother, Jim, has represented for years. McAuliffe was beating him only in the 3rd District, near Hampton Roads; he focused heavily on winning the state's significant African-American population, sending Bill Clinton to the area to campaign and record radio ads.

So Republicans were quick to react. "Creigh who?" asked an e-mail from the Republican National Committee. The Republican Governors Association sent out a list of tax increases that Deeds had voted for while in the state Senate. McDonnell recorded a video message saying he wished the Democratic primary was still going on. Deeds is likely to play up McDonnell's very conservative positions on social issues, undermining the Republican's effort to run as a moderate.

Deeds did seem a little stunned when he spoke to supporters in Charlottesville. "No one could have imagined what we've accomplished here in the commonwealth of Virginia tonight," he said. And though the music playing as he walked onstage was Journey's "Don't Stop Believing," Deeds actually spent a fair amount of time on his Twitter feed talking about what other tunes he was listening to, throughout the campaign. A scroll through the feed shows his favorites — Drive by Truckers, Gram Parsons, Neil Young, Cat Power and others — popping up more often than anything having to do with politics. If aides don't wrest control of his account away from him to use the feed for more conventional messaging, it should be fun to read throughout the fall.

Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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