The notion was that Democrats could win Virginia by nominating candidates acceptable to rural voters. The votes, however, were always in the cities.
After made-for-rural candidates won Senate races in 2006, the Democratic Party thought it had found a formula for winning in states that turned Republican in presidential elections. Jim Webb in Virginia, Claire McCaskill in Missouri and Jon Tester in Montana, all Democrats, won that year by appearing to appeal to rural voters. They were dubbed the “Redneck Caucus.”
The truth is, these candidates were comfortable in rural areas — but they won because of large turnouts in urban areas. The Redneck Caucus had rural style, but won with city votes.
Last Tuesday, Democrats tried to reprise ’06 with another country-tinged candidate running for governor in Virginia. R. Creigh Deeds hails from Bath County, a community tucked into the Shenandoah Valley near West Virginia. The Democrat called rural Virginia “Deeds Country,” but when the votes came in, he lost rural Virginia big. (See the chart on this page; Deeds won less than 35% of the vote in rural Virginia counties.)
Deeds lost urban and exurban Virginia bigger.
Like Webb, Tester and McCaskill, Deeds needed a big turnout in urban areas. He didn’t get it. Instead, the Republican, Robert McDonnell, reversed recent trends in the state, winning nearly 54% of the urban vote. Turnout was down in the rest of the state, compared to the governor’s race four years ago — especially in rural areas. But the number of voters increased slightly in the urban and exurban counties in Northern Virginia.
The chart on this page compares the last three major statewide elections in Virginia. Democrats won the Senate race in ’06 with Webb; and in 2005, Tim Kaine, the Democrat, won the governorship. These two Democrats succeeded by rolling up big margins in the cities while losing in the rest of the state.
There weren’t more voters coming to the polls in Virginia. Overall turnout dropped below 40%, the lowest in 40 years. The difference appeared to be WHO turned out. Republicans voted last week, not Democrats.
McDonnell in Tuesday’s election won almost exactly the same number of votes as Republican George Allen in 2006, when he lost to Redneck Caucus founder Jim Webb. Those Republican votes in both the 2009 and ’05 elections were even distributed the same among rural, exurban and urban counties. McDonnell won only 60 more votes in rural counties than Allen did in 2006.
The two Republicans had the same votes from the same places, but McDonnell won in 2009 because Democratic voters stayed at home.
Democratic voters didn’t vote in either rural areas or in the cities, but Democratic turnout from 2006 to 2009 dropped disproportionately in urban counties. Democratic voters stayed away from Deeds all over the state, but they stayed away the most in urban areas. “It was the larger and mid-sized counties that really came through for McDonnell, not the most rural ones, where turnout lagged and support for Deeds remained lukewarm,” wrote James Gimpel, a University of Maryland political scientist who did a quick analysis of the election at the Yonder’s request.
According to Gimpel’s analysis, McDonnell won 36 percent more votes out of the Northern Virginia suburbs than Jerry Kilgore did in his losing gubernatorial run four years ago. In the rest of the state, Gimpel found, McDonnell increased the vote over Kilgore’s totals by 24 percent.
What changed the result in this election was who voted. “It would seem that different people turned out in 09 compared with” the elections in 2005 and 2006, Gimpel wrote.
Stories written after the election have criticized the Deeds campaign for being unfocused, for failing to appeal to young and African American voters and for being a bit too rural. Rosalind Helderman, writing in the Washington Post, found that a tour of rural Virginia backfired on Deeds.
“In August, his campaign launched a splashy tour of rural ‘Deeds Country’ and later rolled out ads extolling Deeds, a senator from Bath County, as a native who understood the region,” Helderman wrote. “The tour did nothing to help suburban voters think that Deeds understood their concerns. It also did little to convince rural voters that this was the year to back a Democrat.”
McDonnell won, according to Post writer Lee Hockstader, because he found a way to mind meld with Virginia suburbanites. McDonnell didn’t abandon Republican social issues. But he campaigned on roads, jobs and taxes. He didn’t fall in with the “birther” movement (those who doubt that President Obama was born in the U.S.). Instead, he projected an image that “was more corporate suite than partisan rally — serious, temperate, conciliatory, restrained, pragmatic.”
If Jim Webb was the Democratic candidate who was at ease in a small town country store, McDonnell did well at Appleby’s. His campaign is already being touted as a model for Republicans. If the Democrats could build a “Redneck Caucus,” then maybe Republicans could begin a Cul-de-sac Caucus.
Will Democrats further abandon rural voters? Will Republicans start picking candidates who will impress Olive Garden voters more than those at Tractor Supply? Elections are constantly misinterpreted as candidates dissect the most recent election to find the sure-bet strategy for winning the next vote.
Gimpel believes criticism of Deeds’ campaign is misplaced. Democrats were excited in 2005 and 2006, Gimpel said. Republicans appeared to be more motivated in this election. “There was nothing wrong with the Deeds campaign,” Gimpel said. “Had Deeds been running in ’05, he would have won. Sometimes, no matter how competent your campaign, you still fail.”