Democrats are downplaying the Virginia gubernatorial race between their own Creigh Deeds and Republican Bob McDonnell. President Obama's time is a "precious commodity," and he has to decide "on a rational basis" where to spend it, Obama adviser David Axelrod said recently, implying that it would be irrational for the president to campaign for his fellow Democrat (though it was subsequently announced that the president will campaign with Deeds). Former Democratic Gov. Doug Wilder did not endorse anyone in the race; Sheila Johnson, one of the top Democratic funders in the state, is campaigning for McDonnell; and Deeds's primary opponent, former Democratic Party chair Terry McAuliffe, has been cooling his heels rather than campaigning for Deeds.
Why such a crashing silence from the Democrats? Deeds bet that Virginia women would be horrified at Bob McDonnell's decades-old graduate school thesis containing outdated social views on women. Instead, it's Deeds—not McDonnell—whom women are running from, as he relentlessly pounds that thesis and the culture-war proxy that he sees it to be.
It's no wonder Virginia women are insulted. Deeds won't talk to them about the economy, transportation, healthcare reform, or national security. With the worst recession in years and many families struggling to make ends meet, they don't want to hear about somebody's grad school thesis. They want to hear how you're going to get folks back to work and bring down government spending.
I speak from experience. I lived in Virginia for 40 years; I went to college there (go, 'Hoos!), worked there, paid state taxes, got married, and had both of our kids in Virginia hospitals. Although I now happily live in "Terp Territory" across the river in Maryland, I still follow Virginia state politics closely. Virginians are tech-savvy, security-oriented, and pro-education. Norfolk, Va., is home to the world's largest naval base. And don't forget that one of the 9/11 attacks took place on Virginia soil at the Pentagon. Until last year, AOL was headquartered in the state; the top-rated public high school in the country is there, according to U.S.News & World Report's "America's Best High Schools."
A recent Washington Post poll shows McDonnell's lead over Deeds has grown to 9 percentage points, 53 to 44 percent. But what's most interesting is that among independent voters, Deeds trails McDonnell by a whopping 21 points.
Those independent voters—many of them women—are vitally important to both the Republicans and the Democrats. Most were drawn to President Obama's post-partisan promises last year, his cool demeanor, and his seeming moderation on many issues. But the way he and liberal leaders in Congress have tried to force a sharply ideological agenda on taxpayers has not gone over well with middle-of-the-road independents concerned with the size and scope of government. Take a look at this summer's tea party protesters, and you'll see that many of them are women who pay the bills and drive the kids to school. They don't want to hear Democratic candidates stuck in some sort of '70s rehash of the Equal Rights Amendment debate. They want to talk about jobs and transportation and how to keep our kids safe without bankrupting the country.
And that's where the opening is for Republicans.
The GOP should take a cue from McDonnell, who has kept to the issues of taxes, transportation, and jobs. He knows that while most female voters hold an opinion on issues like abortion and day care, they're not single-minded "women's issue" voters who can be pigeonholed. Seriously, is there anyone still opposed to equal pay for women? Men who wear their support for equal pay as if it's a red badge of courage are patronizing.
Independent women voters see themselves as part of the great center-right American mainstream, even though polls show their party affiliation can shift from year to year and candidate to candidate. The same independents who supported the Democrats last fall have started switching to the GOP. By the summer, they were evenly split. And the latest Gallup poll (from the first week of October) shows that independents now favor Republican over Democratic candidates by 45 percent to 36 percent. But the issues independents list as important—the economy, national security—remain the same.
This is what's unfolding in Virginia. "It's still a pretty conservative state, with a lot of people inclined to vote Republican who maybe only voted Democratic last year," an administration official acknowledged to the Post. It's as if the Democrats are saying that Obama's Virginia win last fall was a fluke.
Deeds agreed in a recent debate. "Frankly, a lot of what's going on in Washington has made it very tough," he said. "We had a very tough August because people were just uncomfortable with the spending; they were uncomfortable with a lot of what was going on, a lot of the noise that was coming out of Washington, D.C." In other words, I can't hold on to the independents because of liberal policies coming out of Washington. And if you look at the congressional approval numbers, neither can any of the other Democrats in Washington.
If Republicans were smart, they'd see the lesson Deeds is learning the hard way: Stay away from the extremes of the culture war and stick with the issues important to families trying to make ends meet. If they do, the midterms will be an easy win for Republicans.
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Corrected on 10/22/09: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of AOL's headquarters. As of April 2008, AOL is headquartered in New York City.