No one, not even Creigh Deeds' staunchest backers, would have predicted a month ago that he would win Tuesday's Democratic primary for Virginia governor. That didn't mean, however, that his team wasn't prepared to win. This, in essence, is the untold story of how a state senator from Southwest Virginia could roll up huge margins over his better-funded and better-known foes, even in the Washington suburbs.
To be sure, Deeds needed some breaks to win this. And he got plenty of them. The biggest, of course, was the Washington Post endorsement. This not only gave him the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for Northern Virginia voters, it also helped insulate him against late attacks on his pro-gun record. After all, went the thinking of many suburban D.C. voters, the Post wouldn't endorse someone who wasn't in step with their values.
Yet the endorsement would not have carried as much weight if support for Deeds' opponents hadn't been so shallow. Despite Brian Moran's deep base in the area and Terry McAuliffe's deep pockets, neither had been able to effectively capture the Northern Virginia vote. One has to wonder if McAuliffe's decision to put himself in every single one of his ads actually served to turn off more voters than he turned on.
Deeds spent the least on staff expenditures and the most on direct voter contact, relative to Moran and McAuliffe.
McAuliffe long held that the bigger the turnout, the better he'd do. Yet more than 300,000 ballots were cast, almost twice as many as in 2006, the last non-presidential statewide Democratic primary. More important, turnout in the majority African-American 3rd District was higher than any other district but the Arlington/Alexandria-based 8th. That should have meant good things for McAuliffe. After all, the thinking went, Bill Clinton would help draw black voters into McAuliffe's column, as would a last-minute endorsement by local Rep. Bobby Scott. Oh, and this isn't in the Washington Post's circulation area. In the end, McAuliffe barely won there, with 39 percent of the vote to Deeds' 36 percent.
As for Moran, he had the base but never made the case for himself. In fact, he spent more time dumping on McAuliffe than he did selling himself. Primary voters want to vote for someone. These are the true believers. They're the ones who are going to be the evangelists for the candidate -- selling that person to friends, neighbors and co-workers. Moran never gave them that story to tell.
Opportunities are only as good as one's ability to exploit them, and Deeds did just that. Take a look at how the three candidates spent their money and you see why he was able to win this race.
The Virginia Public Access Project, a nonprofit organization that tracks money in Virginia politics, has a fantastic Web site that breaks down not just the money coming into the campaigns, but the money going out. As of May 27, Deeds had spent over $1.6 million, Moran had spent $1.7 million and McAuliffe had spent a whopping $5.5 million. But it's how they spent it that tells the story.
Deeds spent the least on staff expenditures and the most on direct voter contact, relative to Moran and McAuliffe. According to the VPAP charts, 42 percent of Deeds' expenditures went to TV, radio and direct mail, compared to 34 percent for McAuliffe and a paltry 15 percent for Moran. Meanwhile, Moran spent almost half his budget on staff. McAuliffe was at 44 percent, while Deeds came in at 38 percent.
But will fiscal discipline be enough when it comes to a showdown with Republican Bob McDonnell? The attorney general had no official primary opponent, though Democratic 527 groups -- funded heavily by the Democratic Governors Association -- have been shelling out on anti-McDonnell attack ads. For his part, McDonnell has been even more frugal than Deeds. Of the $3 million he's spent thus far, 46 percent has been on TV, radio and direct mail, and just 23 percent has been for staff. Oh, and he's got another $5 million to spend.
By the way, don't assume that if the Post endorses Deeds again this November it'll carry the same weight as it did in the primary. Like Moran, McDonnell is counting on his roots in Northern Virginia to help him. But, like McAuliffe, he's directing his ad spending toward pricey D.C. markets. This means that by the fall, he'll be better positioned in voters' minds than either Democrat was.
Hopefully, Deeds savored his huge win last night. He faces a much tougher opponent today.