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Was Creigh Deeds's Fatal Error Being Himself?

Whenever I read the words, "You're not from around here, are you?" I automatically imagine them being said with a serious Southern--or at least rural--twang. This election year in Virginia, though, I think that expression has a decidedly suburban lilt--as it's the overwhelming sentiment Creigh Deeds has encountered as he's trawled for votes in Northern Virginia.

Ever since 2001, when their successful gubernatorial candidate Mark Warner commissioned a bluegrass campaign song and sponsored a NASCAR team as part of his "rural strategy," Virginia Democrats have been preoccupied with winning over rural voters, especially in Southwest Virginia. In Deeds, it seemed they'd found the perfect candidate for doing so. A state senator from sparsely populated Bath County near the West Virginia border, Deeds's support of gun rights--not to mention his firsthand experience castrating large farm animals--make him very much at home in Virginia's rural areas. But those traits have made him an alien in Northern Virginia. And despite the best efforts of rural-vote-gurus like Mudcat Saunders to argue otherwise, Virginia Democrats' path to victory still runs through the D.C. suburbs.

Just consider their last three successful Democratic statewide candidates. Yes, Warner did spend a lot of time and effort courting rural voters in 2001, to the extent that he became the first Democrat in years to win a majority (albeit a slim one) of the state's rural vote. But more than half of his 96,000-vote margin of victory over Republican opponent Mark Earley came from his 50,000-vote lead in Northern Virginia, which accounts for 32 percent of the state's total population. (Warner's victory in the 2008 U.S. Senate race was such a cake-walk that it's hard to draw any lessons from it.) Warner's successor as governor, Tim Kaine, was even more reliant on Northern Virginia for his successful run in 2005, with his 105,000-vote margin of victory in Northern Virginia accounting for almost all of his statewide 113,000 vote lead. And in 2006, Jim Webb beat George Allen in the U.S. Senate race by a razor-thin margin of 9,000 votes thanks to his whopping 20-point margin of victory in Northern Virginia.

To be sure, none of these candidates campaigned as Northern Virginians per se, but they were all comfortable fits in the region. Warner, for one, actually came from Northern Virginia, which reassured voters there that all his bluegrass-NASCAR stuff was an electoral ploy rather than a reflection of his true self. Tim Kaine, meanwhile, hails from Richmond, but as the former mayor of the state's capital city, he was a good cultural fit for Northern Virginia. And Webb, whose military background and love of his Scotch-Irish heritage, might make for some awkward conversations while waiting in line at the Clarendon Whole Foods, did carry some cultural currency in NoVa with his background as a bestselling author; he also benefited from the fact that he never called anyone "macaca."

Unfortunately for Deeds, his Republican opponent, Bob McDonnell, hasn't made any similar sorts of blunders. Indeed, his whole campaign--with its emphasis on economic issues and its efforts to avoid any hot-button culture war topics--has been designed to win over voters in Northern Virginia, which is where McDonnell is actually from (a fact he never forgets to mention in his TV ads that air in the D.C. media market). Deeds, by contrast, has been unable to count on the voters in his backyard, since not even his local roots and conservative stances will be enough to convince many of them to pull the lever for a Democrat in 2009. All the while, he's been forced to try to make inroads in a part of the state where voters seem inherently skeptical of anyone with his type of accent. Indeed, the lesson for Virginia Democrats, it seems, is that "authenticity"--long thought to be the coin of the realm in rural America--may actually be a bigger deal in the ‘burbs. Next time, they'd be better off getting a candidate like Warner--a tech millionaire who pretends to be a farmer--than an actual farmer.