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Virginia Campaign for Governor: Brought to You by the Washington Post

The governor's race is now all about GOP contender Bob McDonnell’s college thesis — not his public record or his opponent’s.

by
Jennifer Rubin

Bio

September 14, 2009 - 12:04 am

There are two gubernatorial races going on right now in the state of Virginia. There is the real one in which Republican Bob McDonnell is running a disciplined, issue-filled campaign against  once-promising Democrat Creigh Deeds, who is running a Seinfeld-like campaign about nothing. And there is the campaign going on in the pages of the Washington Post, whose endorsement of Deeds helped vault him over better-known challengers in the primary. The two have nothing to do with one another, one more piece of evidence that the last place you should look to find out what is going on is the mainstream media.

The Post of course has declared the top issue to be a 20-year-old college thesis by McDonnell in which he expressed all sorts of highly out of fashion views on topics such as gays and working women. The Post then proceeded over a two-week span to milk the story, reciting and re-circulating the claims. When it was forced to report the real campaign, it cast McDonnell’s focus on bread and butter issues as an effort to get away from the “real” issue — the Post’s fixation with the thesis. The Weekly Standard’s parody mocking the Post’s thesis fetish blurred the line between fact and fiction when the very next day after running a mock-up of the Post (“Post Runs Another Story About Its McDonnell Story”), the actual Post ran a story headlined: “McDonnell Changes Topic Amid Thesis Issue.” How dare he!

As Gary Andres commented:

Never mind that McDonnell — the state’s former attorney general — premised his campaign on inclusion, pragmatism, and competence, not social issues. Or that he spent 14 years compiling a record in the state’s House of Delegates. Or that the suburban Northern Virginia native offers detailed solutions to front-porch concerns such as improving schools, reducing traffic congestion, and bringing jobs to the state. Deeds might not catch up on those issues. So a caricature that sends shivers through minivan-driving suburban swing voters is just what is needed. Paint McDonnell as a right-wing, anti-abortion, Bible-thumper. And call on the Post — always a reliable ally of Virginia Democrats — to provide the bullets for political character assassination.

Following the Post’s campaign direction, Deeds began to raise the issue and run ads on the invented “issue” – which the Post dutifully reported on. Ah, further evidence that the campaign is now about McDonnell’s term paper and not his public record or his opponent’s. Except for the scant evidence that voters cared about the issue, the Post might have had a point.

But out on the campaign trail the issue didn’t seem to come up much at all and a poll showed McDonnell stretching his lead to 12 points. The Wall Street Journal observed:

Mr. Deeds hasn’t had an easy road. He had to pull off a come-from-behind win in the primary and bring in more experienced campaign staff. And he continues to struggle to present a defining issue that resonates broadly with voters — this week, his message seemed to be education overhaul. The lack of a clear image has left him vulnerable to Mr. McDonnell’s accusation that he is in lockstep with Mr. Obama and congressional Democrats.

Mr. Deeds faces another obstacle: history. In every Virginia gubernatorial election since 1977, the party that won the presidency the previous year went on to lose the governor’s race.

“Voters in Virginia tend to take on the mission of the founding fathers, who believed in balance. Apparently this thing has become an iron law. It’s just fascinating,” said political science Prof. Larry J. Sabato at the University of Virginia. “It really does give McDonnell a major boost. While this thesis controversy helps Deeds, that can’t counteract this movement away from Obama.”

But what about that thesis? Well, the Journal agreed it hadn’t made much of an impact.

It is quite a role reversal from the campaign of 2005, in which Republican Jerry Kilgore ran a campaign strangely devoid of any issue which the voters cared about. The death penalty and illegal immigration absorbed his time, about which the mainstream tut-tutted in disapproval, while now Governor Tim Kaine talked about jobs, schools, and transportation — exactly as McDonnell is doing this time around.

Deeds has yet to come up with a defining issue. He instead has been battered by McDonnell, who has sought to corner Deeds on whether he agrees with the Democrats’ left-leaning national agenda on issues including card check, cap-and-trade, and government-centric health care reform which moderate and conservative Virginia voters view with increasing suspicion. Deeds is hoping of course that the Post, as it did with incessant coverage of Sen. George Allen’s infamous “macaca” comment in 2006, can convert this into a race about his opponent’s “scary” views and about social issues that will turn off voters in voter-rich Northern Virginia, where the hometown paper for most voters is none other than the Post.

But the Post may have its work cut out. In the upcoming debates McDonnell, a mild-mannered, detail-oriented lawyer with a wonkish array of policy positions, will be on the stage, not the caricature created by the Post. Voters may have a hard time believing that this McDonnell is the same person targeted by the Post.

And of course, he’s not. The real McDonnell has professional daughters, a record of pushing through bi-partisan legislation and a powerful argument that Virginians can play a role in pushing back on the Democrats’ leftward lurch in Washington. And that tells you why the Post has invented an entirely different McDonnell to cover.

Jennifer Rubin blogs at the Washington Post.
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