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Posted June 10, 2009 | comments Leave a comment

Democratic Primary '09: A post-mortem

Here in the cold light of dawn (or mid afternoon) following the Democratic triumph of Creigh Deeds, I've been reading what some outlanders think of our little scrum. AP moved an analysis of the race, as has the New York Times and The Atlantic.

What's striking about all three is just how wrong they are.

Deeds didn't win due to "Macker fatigue," the triumph of moderate ideology or by keeping his nose clean in a mud-slinging slug fest. He won because he was the only candidate with Northern Virginia credentials who didn't get attacked.

Yes, I know Deeds is from Bath County, a place that makes where I grew up look like Atlantic City. But bear with me.

People who don't live here have a hard time recognizing it, but there is a very real tension between different areas of the state -- particularly between Northern Virginia and less urbanized sections, charmingly called the "Rest of Virginia" by some observers.

Politicians decry those who "pit one region against another," but the dirty little secret is they don't have to. Ill will between NoVa and RoVa is long-established and often times palpable, particularly in Richmond.

RoVa people tend to think of NoVa as a bunch of rich, uppity so-and-sos who like to look down their noses at the rest of the state, with its coal mines and guns, at least until the need money to pay for something like Metro or more roads.

NoVa people can't understand why the rest of the state won't go along with what they want. After all, NoVa is the economic engine, and it sends way more tax dollars down to Richmond than it gets back. And if they want to do something about roads, then the rest of the state should chip in to keep the economic engine running in good order.

This divide is at the heart of Tuesday's result.

At it's most basic level, this was a contest for the hearts and minds of Northern Virginia. See the Virginia Public Access project's fantastic map of ballots cast here. Northern Virginians are quite simply the 800-pound gorilla of Democratic politics in Virginia.

Essentially, we had two Northern Virginia candidates and Deeds. Terry McAuliffe, a long-time resident and consummate inside-the-beltway guy, and Brian Moran, Alexandria's voice in the House of Delegates.

Enter The Washington Post, and their endorsement process.

Operatives from more than one campaign told me that, during interviews, the Post's editorial board zeroed in on one issue and one issue alone -- transportation. And given that this is the Post's edit board, they focused on the same part of the issue that they've hammered on for as long as I've been covering Virginia politics, the gas tax.

At the end of the day, Moran said he wouldn't raise the gas tax, McAuliffe said he wouldn't raise any taxes until the economy improved. Enter Deeds, who said he would. The endorsement speaks for itself:

In 18 years in the General Assembly, Mr. Deeds has time and again supported measures that might be unpopular with his rural constituency but that are the right thing to do, for Northern Virginia and the state as a whole.
Last year, however, as both candidates [Deeds and Moran] were laying the groundwork for their campaigns, Mr. Deeds courageously voted for a proposal that included raising the state's gas tax, unchanged since 1986; Mr. Moran helped kill the bill by opposing it in committee.
Done deal. Deeds had NoVa street cred.  And the results were immediate.

Look at the major inflection point in this Pollster.com tracking graph, right after May 21, the day the Post gave its blessing to the man from beyond Interstate 81.

Given the assurance that they could walk away from the two NoVa candidates for a third option, the war between Moran and McAuliffe started to do more than just swap support between the two -- it drove voters to Deeds.

Because of the urban-rural split, the balance of Virginia was already a fairly solid lock for Deeds.

A two-man race could have been a very different story. Take McAuliffe and Moran together, and Deeds loses by about a half of a percentage point, or roughly 1,200 votes.

That's not to take anything away from Deeds' campaign. It takes some significant foresight -- and intestinal fortitude -- to lay off staffers to buy air time in Northern Virginia at the last minute.

There is some merit to other explanations of why Deeds waltzed to victory on Tuesday, but the biggest is the simplest: he was the only candidate with NoVa bona fides that wasn't subjected to withering attacks.

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