Virginia state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds defeated better-funded, better-known rivals in the Democratic gubernatorial primary and led his Republican challenger, Robert F. McDonnell, in early polls.
But since the unofficial start of the campaign season on Labor Day, Mr. Deeds has trailed Mr. McDonnell by as many as 18 percentage points in a recent survey - prompting the question “What happened?”
“It’s money and how they spent it,” said Deeds spokesman Mike Gehrke. “Bob McDonnell has run more negative ads in the past several weeks than we’ve run ads in total.”
According to the Virginia Public Access Project, Mr. Deeds spent $10 million on radio and television ads this year, including the $1 million spent during the primary. Mr. McDonnell, who did not have a primary opponent, spent $9.6 million.
Mr. McDonnell began campaigning statewide while Democrats were still choosing their nominee.
In addition, more money has poured into Virginia than in previous election cycles because there are only two gubernatorial races this year. The other is in New Jersey.
Including money raised and spent in the primary, Mr. Deeds raised $16.2 million and spent $15.3 million, as of Oct. 21. According to the Virginia Public Access Project in the same period, Mr. McDonnell raised $21.5 million and spent $19.6 million.
Mr. Deeds has said his campaign had to “go dark” in July and August to focus on fundraising.
What’s more, Mr. McDonnell tapped donors and supporters who had backed Democrats before. BET Networks co-founder Sheila Johnson announced that she was supporting Mr. McDonnell, and she made a TV ad.
Mr. McDonnell also received a boost when former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the state’s most influential black politician, declined to endorse either candidate - a blow to his fellow Democrat, Mr. Deeds.
Randal J. Kirk, a key contributor to Gov. Tim Kaine’s political action committee who has doled out $1.8 million to Virginia candidates and causes in the past 10 years, also withheld his support in the general election after contributing over $200,000 to one of Mr. Deeds’ rivals for the Democratic nomination, Terry McAuliffe.
In late August, news broke of Mr. McDonnell’s 20-year-old graduate thesis in which he said, in part, that homosexuality, working women and abortion were detrimental to American families.
The Deeds campaign referred frequently to the thesis, and polling numbers tightened.
However, likely voters rejected the campaign’s focus on the thesis. According to the Public Policy Poll, 52 percent said they were “very familiar” with the thesis and 59 percent said it made no difference in their vote.
In the latest Public Policy Poll, 59 percent said Mr. Deeds has run a mostly negative campaign, while 56 percent said Mr. McDonnell has run a mostly positive campaign.
The perception of a negative campaign became so persistent in early October that other Democrats were recommending that Mr. Deeds shift his focus.
And history is not on Mr. Deeds’ side: Virginia’s governor has been from the opposite party as the president since 1977. With the election of President Obama, Democrats won the state for the first time since 1964.
By Douglas Holtz-Eakin
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