I attended the Democrats’ annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner on Saturday evening. Although Bill Clinton headlined the event, I was there to see what I could learn about how the primary is shaping up in the party’s first contested nomination battle in a generation. It was a good opportunity to get the take of a wide range of party activists and elected officials on the race, to hear the candidates speak to a large setting of nearly three thousand party faithful, and to gauge the reaction of the attendees to Deeds, McAuliffe, and Moran. I wasn’t disappointed.
The Pre-Speech Buzz
I did not get the impression that party activists and party officials either have a clear favorite or are certain about the race will turn out. A number of insiders told me that they thought it would be tough to overcome McAuliffe’s cash advantage, media savvy and campaign skills. But party people and interest group leaders who have worked closely with Moran and Deeds are not going to abandon them anytime soon. Deeds and Moran are well liked and respected as individuals. Almost all the Democrats to whom I spoke felt that Bob McDonnell is a strong Republican candidate. The ultimate assessment of who will stand the best shot of keeping the statehouse Democratic against McDonnell will become an important element of the final choice. These Democrats like having power and they want to hold on to it.
Given that McAuliffe has only been active in Virginia politics for a few months, it is odd to say that his performance was what we have come to expect, but this was the case. If McAuliffe loses, it won’t be because of his campaign team’s inattention to detail or because of his inability to articulate a message that resonates with the times.
One way to convince Democrats that you might be able to beat Bob McDonnell is not only to speak about the resources you’ll bring to the campaign, but to show how that your funds will be utilized. The McAuliffe team was organized for the entire day. It had a major presence at the pre-dinner festivities. It made sure that McAuliffe supporters attended the dinner in sufficient numbers. At the event, his team skillfully worked the media center. Afterwards, Tim Craig reports that McAuliffe was on the dance floor at a crowded Richmond night club, shaking to hip hop.
McAuliffe’s message is focused on responding to the economc dislocation coursing through the state and the nation. I think that his concentration on jobs and economic recovery will get people’s attention. He contends that his business experience will enable him to recruit god jobs to the state, explicitly comparing his own background to Mark Warner in his pre-gubernatorial days. At the dinner, McAuliffe noted that he would not criticize the other Democratic candidates and would reserve this part of his message for Bob McDonnell and the Republicans.
McAuliffe was well received at the dinner, though the reception was not in any way overwhelming when compared to the other Democrats running. If there is anything a little “off” about McAuliffe’s message, it is this: he appears more comfortable speaking about the kind of leadership he will “bring to” Virginia than he is talking about how he will represent and implement the values that “We Virginians” care about.
I ran into Brian at the at the back of the hall a short while before he was scheduled to speak and we were able to talk for a few minutes about the campaign. It was clear that he felt that it was important to use the opportunity the dinner presented to frame the choices in the primary clearly and forcefully. Moran understands that McAuliffe may outspend him and Deeds by a considerable amount and that he has to find effective ways of countering.
For the past two weeks, Moran has worked to define himself as “greener” than the other two candidates as a way of staking out the broader progressive consituency inside the Democratic Party. He did this again at the JJ dinner, but with two interesting twists, both directed primarily against McAuliffe.
First, both in the video that preceded his talk and in the speech itself, Moran reminded the audience of how far the Democrats have come and how bad things were for the party only a decade ago when the party was outnumbered in the House of Delegates by an almost two to one margin. He told the audience just how hard everyone in the room had fought to turn this condition around and how proud they should be of what they had accomplished together, offering specific shout outs to teachers, union members, and environmental activists.
Why would they now when prospects are better, Moran implicitly asked, turn the party over to someone who had not been part of this shared history in Virginia, but had been laboring elsewhere? It is a good question to raise and one of the toughest that McAuliffe will have to answer.
Second, Moran also served up hard hitting criticisms of McAuliffe that some attendees might not have been expecting to see on the menu for the dinner. Moran’s video proclaimed that “Money Isn’t Everything,” and his speech defined the choice in the campaign as one between a “fighter or a fundraiser.” The effort here, I think, is to find a way to use McAuliffe’s resources and business connections against him at a time when the moral authority of big money has been severely diminished with the broader public.
I have spoken to people who have been surprised that Moran has completely identified himself with the party’s constituent groups during the primary and have wondered how this would play out in November. But you have to win in June to get to November and Moran may well be taking the best approach available to him.
Deeds and Moran are occupying some of the same thematic territory, though they begin the campaign with different geographic bases. I was struck by the populist tenor of Deeds’ speech. Like Moran, he is defining himself as a fighter for ordinary Virginians against the forces arrayed against them. And while all the Democratic candidates pay obeisance to Mark Warner, Deeds and Moran are sounding every day more and more like Jim Webb.
Deeds speaks of commiting himself to fighting for people that big institutions treat as if they are “too small to matter.” He talks about the growing inequality in the nation and in Virginia. And he explicitly condemns the culture of corporate greed that he believes has become far too pervasive. Deeds isn’t the most polished speaker of the three candidates, but his sincerity and passion match his message well.
Having run against McDonnell for AG in 2005, Deeds called the GOP gubernatorial candidate “smart, focused and consistent,” though he was also “consistently wrong.” He maintained that McDonnell would oppose a woman’s right to choose, that he would inject the government into hospital rooms and bedrooms, and that he would reverse the progress made under Democrats.
It was clear that the primary area of agreement among the three candidates relates to what they think of Bob McDonnell. Whoever gets the nomination will strive to portray the Attorney General as a reactionary figure who will work to reverse the advances made under Warner and Kaine.
But whether the party can negotiate a primary where they don’t harm themselves prior to the time they can focus primarily on McDonnell is a question that was on a lot of Democratic minds at the JJ dinner.