A Huge Night for the GOP in Virginia

In the end, it wasn't even a contest. Bob McDonnell didn't simply beat Creigh Deeds in Tuesday's Virginia governor's race; he annihilated him.

Based on the returns as of Wednesday morning, McDonnell beat Deeds by 17.4 points, matching the numbers that were seen in the late polls that showed him surging to a huge lead on the eve of Election Day. McDonnell's margin of victory tied the record that George Allen set back in 1993 as the largest margin of victory in a gubernatorial election in modern Virginia history.

McDonnell also proved to have strong coattails. Both of his ticketmates, Bill Bolling and Ken Cuccinelli, posted similarly large victories over their Democratic opponents in the races for lieutenant governor and attorney general. Virginia Republicans also ended their recent string of defeats in the state legislature by adding as many as seven seats to what had been an extremely thin two-seat majority in the House of Delegates. When McDonnell takes office in January, he will do so with a strong Republican majority in the House of Delegates and a razor-thin Democratic majority in the state Senate.

The full extent of McDonnell's victory can be best understood by looking at Northern Virginia, the source of many of the Democratic victories that the state has seen over the past four years. In Prince William County, for example, where Obama won last year by six points, McDonnell beat Deeds by seven. In Loudoun County, where Obama won by eight points last year, McDonnell beat Deeds this year by an astounding twenty-two points. And, perhaps most significantly, in Fairfax County, the largest county in the area, which had gone for Obama by 21 points last year, McDonnell beat Deeds by 4,000 votess. To understand the significance of that final result, note that Fairfax had not gone for a Republican candidate for governor since 1997 and that four years ago the county had gone for Democrat Tim Kaine by 23 points. Some thought Fairfax County, and perhaps all of Northern Virginia, was lost to Republicans forever. Last night, Bob McDonnell proved them wrong.

Additionally, the full extent of the failure of Creigh Deeds can be seen in statewide voter turnout. Fewer voters came to the polls this year (an estimated 1,949,841) than did for last year’s presidential election (3,723,260). Lower turnout is to be expected in off-year elections, of course, but the drop-off from last year, and the apparent failure of younger voters to come to the polls in anything close to the numbers they did last year, is clearly an indication that the much-vaunted Obama machine didn’t have any impact beyond the 2008 election itself. For example, in both Arlington County and the city of Alexandria, two Democratic strongholds, Deeds won easily. However, turnout in both jurisdictions was down by more than 50% from last year, and Deeds underperformed compared to the results Democrats had seen in 2005. Obviously, even die-hard Democrats weren’t excited by Creigh Deeds.

There is no doubt that many pundits will try to draw national implications out of the massive Republican comeback in Virginia, but there's not really any evidence that there are any. For one thing, yesterday's exit polls make it fairly clear that most voters did not consider their vote in the McDonnell-Deeds race to be a re-election of their opinion about the president. By a wide margin, the most important issue for most voters was the state of the economy. Obviously, that should raise red flags for Democrats as we head into 2010 with every indication that unemployment will remain high for most of the coming year, but it's a mistake to look at these results as a referendum on Barack Obama's presidency. Also, President Obama didn't invest nearly the same amount of time in Virginia that he did in New Jersey, largely because national Democrats had recognized weeks ago that the Deeds campaign was doomed.

No, the results in Virginia do not prove that the Obama presidency is fatally wounded, and they certainly don't mean anything when it comes to issues like the debate over health care reform. What they do prove, though, is that Republicans can still win in so-called purple states like Virginia (with two Democratic senators and a majority-Democratic congressional delegation, Virginia is still very much a purple state) if they focus their campaigns on applying small-government principles to the issues that voters care about. That's what Bob McDonnell did. He did it better than any Republican in Virginia has in at least twelve years, and that's the main reason that he won last night.

If Republicans want to draw a lesson from Virginia, that's the one they need to learn.