Deeds Done

The likely defeat today of Democrat Creigh Deeds by Republican Bob McDonnell in Virginia's gubernatorial election sends an important message to both political parties, but it's not clear either one will listen to it. McDonnell's win will give Republicans something to crow about after three straight losing elections in the formerly dark red state, but his path to victory didn't follow the route currently being touted by conservatives in his party.  Democrats are inclined to dismiss Deeds likely defeat as an isolated incident that reflects more of Virginia's tradition to vote for the out party in the off year or the result of a lackluster campaign on Deeds' part.  For example, the Deeds campaign was nowhere to be found on the Net, even as McDonnell's campaign finished with a  Google Ad blast, targeted at both voters spending the day in Virginia and those many Virginians who spend their days working in DC.  ( The resulting failure of Democratic voters to turn out in sufficient numbers to make the election even close, however, sends an important message that Democratic leaders across America should not ignore.

Deeds McDonnellDeeds began the general election campaign by using McDonnell's master's thesis at Jerry Fallwell's Liberty University in an attempt to paint his opponent as a right wing ideologue on social issues. In effect, Deeds adopted the traditional Republican campaign strategy of  emphasizing social issues. But that approach lost its punch when American politics entered a new, civic-oriented era. In times like the present, broader societal concerns, not the politics of polarization carry the day. Just as the hot topics of the 1920s-Prohibition and the teaching of evolution -disappeared from the political debates of the 1930s, the favorite wedge issues of the 1990s-abortion, gay rights, and, once again, evolution or creationism--have fallen to the bottom of voter priority lists.

As a result, the initial success of Deed's attack was thwarted as McDonnell turned the electorate's attention to the more pressing question of jobs and the economy. His campaign themes were job creation, sound fiscal governance and bipartisanship-with no emphasis on the social issues that Republicans, like former Senator George Allen, had previously used in the state to define their party. Yet Deeds didn't seem to get the message, manifesting ambivalence about embracing President Obama and his domestic policies throughout the general election campaign. 

Nor did Deeds put forward an alternative plan to provide a positive vision for the economic future of Virginia that would engage young voters and minorities. One self-described "Obama fanatic," who decided not to cast a vote for either candidate this year, put it best when she said, "I wanted to hear more from him [Deeds] about his plan to create jobs and address our taxes." (WSJ, Oct. 31, 2009, Corey Dade, "Virginia's Race Tests Obama's Staying Power). Some polls during the campaign even indicated that between a quarter and a third of African-Americans (a group that is normally 90%+ Democratic) contemplated voting for the GOP candidate.

As American politics enters a new era driven by the civic-orientation of the Millennial Generation (born 1982-2003) and the rising number of minority voters, each party must rethink the composition of the ideological and demographic coalition on which it will build to ensure future success.   One clear lesson that can be drawn from the results in Virginia is the need for both parties to base all four Ms (message, messenger, media and money) of their campaigns in the years ahead to reflect the new civic era America has entered. Candidates with a demonstrated desire to serve will need to deliver a message focused on greater economic equality and ethnic inclusiveness using all of today's new media in order to win. 

The results in Virginia are likely to provide a good example of how that winning formula can be used not just by Democrats, but also by Republicans who are able to unshackle their campaigns from the ideological straight jacket their party's base is normally so intent on imposing. The outcome will also demonstrate that for Democrats to simply raise the party banner without embracing Barack Obama's formula for victory will not be enough to carry the day. The political equivalent of Darwin's law of "adapt or die," remains the fundamental truth of American politics in this new civic era.