The Night They Brought Old Dixie Back

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

You know your candidate is in big trouble when you get the "Believe" e-mail. It usually means he is so far behind in the polls that he won't use actual stats, but he needs you to vote so the defeat won't be even more lopsided.

I got that e-mail two days before Creigh Deeds, the Democrat running for Governor of Virginia, got walloped by Republican Bob McDonnell on Nov. 3. I knew it was all over then. But here's what Deeds sent: "If you believe, and I believe, and we believe together, we will win this election." Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

The Republican ticket had perhaps the most reactionary record in recent Virginia history, yet they ran successfully as moderates. Bob McDonnell, a graduate of televangelist Pat Robertson's law school (an oxymoron if ever there were one) wrote his graduate thesis about how working women endangered the family and unmarried couples should be denied birth control. On top of that, as state attorney general, he approved an amendment to Virginia's historic bill of rights that forbade marriage-like contractual agreements for both heterosexuals and homosexuals. For the first time ever, the Virginia Bill of Rights, the model for our U.S. Bill of Rights, had an asterisk.

McDonnell's newly elected successor as Virginia's attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, is so virulent in his opposition to equal rights for gay people that the Washington Post described it as "bigotry." As state senator, Cuccinelli said that homosexual acts are "intrinsically wrong" and that "in a natural law-based country it's appropriate to have policies that reflect that." Looks like we need a new state slogan, as "Virginia Is For Lovers" verges on false advertising.

With such candidates, and a do-nothing health insurance executive in the Lt. Governor slot, the Republicans were not expected to win so big (17 points statewide) and to have such huge consequences down ballot (six Democratic incumbents, many of them impressive, lost their seats in the state legislature). But McDonnell looked good on camera--a short man with a big head like Alan Ladd and other stars of old Hollywood--and he did a good job of acting, too, by running as a moderate. How else to explain such a quick switch in political philosophy?

The Republican victory in Virginia brought the same cast of players, ostensibly defeated by Barack Obama's election, back to the table: religious right activists, no-tax extremists, and the old ruling class that has dominated Southern politics for generations. With McDonnell's election, they've learned a new formula of "acceptable Republicanism," according to Newt Gingrich: "develop a positive message and campaign intensely among minorities."

The most likely beneficiary of such a strategy is Haley Barbour, governor of Mississippi and head of the Republican Governors Association. Widely reputed to be running for vice president, Barbour can't afford for the Republican Party to be solely identified with white men. Yet, as former head of the national Republican Party, it's puzzling why he didn't help elect an African American to statewide office in Mississippi, which has the greatest percentage of African Americans in any state and the greatest total number of black elected officials nationwide. You'd think that if Bob McDonnell could convince Obama supporter Sheila Johnson, co-founder of BET and the first black female billionaire in America, to support him for governor, then Barbour could do a better job in Mississippi. As a veteran lobbyist, he certainly knows the art of persuasion.

Barbour told the Washington Post: "In the American two-party system, both parties necessarily are coalitions. And when you lose, you need to go to special efforts to make everybody in your coalition feel welcome." So McDonnell's and Barbour's brand of Republicanism will dial back the rhetoric of a Rush Limbaugh, and focus its wrath on Nancy Pelosi more than Barack Obama. But will it govern any differently?

Barbour certainly didn't. As Mississippi governor during Hurricane Katrina, he excelled in corporate welfare. He funneled federal recovery funds to state insurance companies, rather than help low-income people as Congress directed. He campaigned on a motto of "We Can Do Better," but after eight years in office Barbour's (and my) home state is still dead last in most rankings except poverty, where it is perenially first.

Back in Virginia, however, there is a ray of hope for Democrats. Longtime activist Scott Surovell, a young lawyer who was campaigning "in utero" according to his similarly devoted mother, won a hard-fought campaign to retain a Democratic seat in the Virginia legislature, representing the Mount Vernon suburb of Washington, DC. Surovell, the Energizer bunny of Virginia Democratic politics, entered his race at the end of June when the incumbent unexpectedly retired. Taking his campaign from zero to sixty in just a few days, Surovell outraised and outworked his heavily backed Republican opponent and won election barely four months later.

How did Surovell do it? By not taking his Obama voters for granted. Surovell hired field organizers to replicate the Obama strategy in precincts with high percentages of African Americans but chronically low turnout, especially in off-year elections. By doing so, Surovell not only won his own race but boosted the gubernatorial candidate's performance in his district. Had such a strategy been followed statewide, Democrat Creigh Deeds might still have lost to McDonnell, but not by nearly so large a margin.

The calculus for Democratic victory in Virginia has changed, but candidates are not keeping up. It used to be that the state's marginal Democrats in rural areas decided elections--and the heavily Democratic regions of Northern Virginia and the southeastern coastal cities in Hampton Roads had to play along. But since Obama mobilized thousands of young people and ethnic minorities to win the state, voters in the urban areas are reluctant to go back to the old ways. Unless statewide candidates can excite the Obama constituents, they won't win, and they will have to run more liberal campaigns to do so. Having tasted victory, the Obama voters in Virginia are unlikely to return to old-time Virginia politics.

But the Republicans are resurgent, at least for now. It's going to be a hard slog in 2010 and 2012 to keep the grassroots fervor alive--and the funding to sustain it. In Virginia, we are just plain-out tired. Our grassroots activists have been fighting tooth and nail to claw out Democratic victories since 2001--electing two governors, two U.S. senators, and culminating with Barack Obama, the first Democratic nominee to win the state's presidential electors in 44 years. With state or federal elections every year, Virginia's Democratic base is exhausted.

So man up, all you Obama voters of 2008. Virginia is a bellweather of what can happen in 2010 and 2012 if Democratic fatigue and Republican dissembling coincide. Yes we did, and yes we must again.