Richmond, Va. — A year after Barack Obama handed the Republicans their first presidential defeat in Virginia in 44 years with a pledge to restore jobs, the Democrats appear to have squandered the party’s advances.
Polls predict a strong Republican victory in Tuesday’s gubernatorial election. They also show how powerful the issue of jobs and the economy remains — and how quickly the Democrats lost ownership of it.
The elections for governor in Virginia and New Jersey are seen by some as the first voter verdicts on Obama’s presidency and a possible sign of trouble for the Democrats’ large majorities in Congress.
In Virginia, recent polls show Republican Bob McDonnell leading by 11 to 18 percentage points over Democrat R. Creigh Deeds.
“We learned from what Obama did last year, and the party and Bob McDonnell took those principles as far as connecting with people and turning out the vote, and now it’s all working,” said Wendell S. Walker, a 57-year-old GOP campaign volunteer in Lynchburg.
McDonnell, a former attorney general and social conservative who entered politics in Pat Robertson’s home base of Virginia Beach, made the election a referendum on Obama’s — and the Democrats’ — marquee initiatives: health care reform and an energy bill that discourages fossil-fuel use, a threatening proposition in Virginia coal country.
He also criticized Obama’s economic policies, even urging legislative Republicans in April to reject $125 million in federal stimulus aid for jobless Virginians as unemployment rates spiked.
McDonnell portrays Obama’s policies as grave threats to businesses, jobs and family finances. That has put Deeds in the no-win position of either breaking with his party’s president or embracing his most polarizing policies.
McDonnell has distilled his campaign into three simple words on bumper stickers and yard signs: “BOB’S FOR JOBS.” He has said he will create jobs by reducing taxes on businesses and fattening the pool of money governors use to entice employers to the state.
Meanwhile, Deeds — a rural county lawyer and moderate state senator who narrowly lost the attorney general’s race to McDonnell four years ago — never established a clear, consistent message about the economy.
“That’s what a lot of us are saying: ‘I wish he’d talked more about jobs,”’ said Hahn Deniston, a Democratic volunteer from Colonial Heights.
Few dispute that Deeds missed key opportunities almost from the start.
After his easy primary victory in June over former state legislator Brian Moran and DNC chairman and Clinton confidante Terry McAuliffe, he devoted the summer to fundraising, not campaigning.
Deeds said he had no choice: “If I hadn’t had a primary, I might have had the money not to go dark during July and August.”
National trends certainly hampered Deeds. Unrest about health reform, stimulus spending and the energy bill manifested itself in vehement “tea party” rallies by conservatives and angry confrontations when members of Congress, particularly Democrats, held public meetings.