Creigh Deeds Tests Obama's Pull at the Polls

Last summer, Creigh Deeds, the Democratic candidate for governor of Virginia, killed a 270-pound black bear with his car near the little Appalachian town of Millboro, where the two of us grew up in the 1970s. The bear had lumbered out of the woods and Deeds couldn't brake fast enough. The bear died instantly. The candidate's car didn't fare much better. The news went out over the police scanner, and within a few hours most everyone in rural Bath County knew all about it. It wasn't long before Deeds started receiving urgent calls from locals. They weren't worried about him. They wanted to know what he was going to do with the bear. "People kept coming up to me for days," Deeds recalled recently when I traveled around the state with him. " 'Can I have your bear, Creigh, can I have your bear?' " They wanted to use it to train bluetick hounds for hunting, or to make a rug, or to eat.

For more than 20 years, Deeds has served the people of Bath County locally and in the Virginia Legislature. They like him in part because he is one of them, and because he's nothing like the picture that pops into your head when you think of a politician. Deeds is the opposite of slick and rehearsed. His accent is country South, not Southern genteel. His campaign speeches ramble. He sometimes tells stories that are funny and endearing, but that don't seem to have a point. "People said a fella from Bath County can't be the nominee," he told a crowd in Danville last month. "Now they're saying a fella from Bath County can't be governor." The punch line of the story: "But I know you gotta do right by people … I grew up on a dirt farm. We ate hogs and deer."

In many respects, Deeds is a Democratic political consultant's dream candidate for a Southern state like Virginia. He's more conservative than many Republicans. He fishes and hunts, and knows the parts of a hog without consulting Cook's Illustrated. In previous races for governor, political handlers made big money trying to make candidates look like authentic Southerners. Mark Warner, the popular former Democratic governor and now U.S. senator, was a Harvard Law grad from Indianapolis who'd made millions incell phones. But on the campaign trail, he talked about guns and NASCAR to appeal to voters like the ones Deeds grew up with.

Deeds doesn't need to fake it. Voters like my parents and their neighbors know he's the real thing. People tell stories about the year he knocked on nearly every door in the county when he was running for his first elected office. They remember how he was nearly killed at 12 years old, when he was struck by a runaway truck that rolled down the steep hill in front of the school during the homecoming football game. Deeds lay in a coma for 16 days, then suddenly woke up. Everyone knows his mom, Emmie, a letter carrier, who still delivers the mail to my parents. My mom, who has a beauty shop in her house, used to cut Deeds's hair. My dad has served with him for years in the Millboro Presbyterian Church. (Deeds was three years ahead of me in school. We played basketball and rode the same schoolbus, but we weren't close friends.) The people back home supported Deeds, 51, as he worked his way from local commonwealth's attorney to state delegate to state senator. Now that he's running for governor, the people of Bath County still like him.

But many voters in his rural district aren't going to vote for him. They're throwing their support to his conservative Republican opponent, Bob McDonnell, who beat out Deeds for Virginia attorney general in 2005 by only 360 votes out of 2 million. Pressed and polished and with never a word (or hair) out of place, McDonnell is the picture that pops into your head when you think of a politician. There is no mistaking McDonnell for a country local. But Deeds, despite winning a big upset in the primary, is trailing him by 9 points (53–44) in the latest Washington Post poll.

There's a lot riding on Deeds in this election, and not just for him. Virginia's election is being closely watched—along with that of struggling incumbent Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine in New Jersey—as the first real electoral test of Barack Obama's presidency. The off-year results could offer hints of what could happen nationally in the 2010 midterm elections.

"Without a doubt Democrats are worried that this is a harbinger," says Mark J. Rozell, a political scientist at George Mason University. "And it's Creigh Deeds's misfortune that the Obama administration is mired in the health-care struggle, the conservative right has been reenergized, and these broader national trends are weighing against his candidacy."

In politics, sometimes the blaming starts in advance. Already, unnamed White House aides have leaked that it's Deeds's race to win, perhaps distancing themselves from the blowback if he loses. Obama campaigned for Deeds earlier in the race, then seemed to hang back, which set off speculation in the press that there was friction between the Deeds campaign and the White House. But now, with Deeds's polls sagging, the president is scheduled to head back down to Virginia next week. He'll try to fire up the voters who helped him win the state for the Democrats in 2008.

Deeds isn't in trouble just because he's a Democrat in a traditionally Republican-leaning state—people in his district have voted for him for years despite that. It's more that Deeds—who has benefited his entire career from his persona as an authentic Southerner in a state that is becoming less so—now finds himself running up against the limits of authenticity.

Dave (Mudcat) Saunders, the smack-talking rural political strategist who helped both Warner and fellow Virginia Sen. Jim Webb win, says not being seen as phony "can take you a long way," but only so far. "This is just not a good year to be a Democrat in Virginia," he says. A lot of people in the southwestern parts of the state—Deeds's turf—weren't happy about Obama's election and may look to take it out on Democrats in November. "It's a perfect playing field for the Republicans," Saunders says. "It's like playing a football game, 11 against 11, but 10 of their guys have machetes." (Another problem for Deeds: polls show that African-Americans, who traditionally vote Democratic, aren't going to show up at the polls in large numbers.)

As he attempts to make the leap into big-time politics, even the folks back home are looking at him with the same cold, calculating eye they cast on any pol who comes trolling for votes. Just past my parents' house sits a little trailer with 10 blue McDonnell signs in the yard. Right on his mom's mail route, no less. A recent headline in the letters column of our home paper distilled the whispers: "The Deeds We Used to Know No Longer Exists." Deeds appears genuinely upset that people could think that about him. "I'm still the same person I've always been," he says. "Nothing's changed. Nothing at all." The idea of it seems to gnaw at him: that he can be loved, he can be real, and he can still lose to a guy who is neither.

Deeds thought he'd found a way to turn things around when Washington Post reporters uncovered a thesis McDonnell had written as a graduate student at Pat Robertson's Regent University. In the paper, which McDonnell wrote when he was 34, he called a Supreme Court decision legalizing birth control for unmarried couples "illogical," and argued that allowing women to work outside the house was "detrimental" to the family.

In a state as diverse as Virginia, the thesis provided plenty of opportunities for attack. Deeds denounces it in every speech. "We've got an opening with this thesis business," Deeds told me. "It puts in context everything McDonnell's all about."

The tactic is working better in the liberal parts of the state, where Deeds, like other Virginia Democrats, finds a lot of his support—and where many voters see McDonnell as a throwback to an unwanted time. But in the more rural areas, it may be working against Deeds. At a campaign event in rural Halifax, a local politician bluntly told a Deeds aide that the candidate should stop hammering on the thesis. "People down here think what he wrote was dead right," he said.

Deeds battles the idea that he's lost touch with his roots wherever he goes. Even the NRA has abandoned him. Deeds grew up hunting in the woods around Millboro and worked to pass a constitutional amendment that guaranteed Virginians the right to hunt and fish forever. When he was Bath County commonwealth's attorney, he worked with my dad, the local game warden, to prosecute poachers. My father had a stuffed mechanical buck deer that operated by remote control, and he would stand the deer up in a field and then go hide in the woods nearby. Inevitably, poachers would stop and shoot, and then wonder why the deer didn't fall over. They found out why when my dad rolled up and took them off to jail.

Deeds was the first prosecutor in the county to try these poachers, who gave gun owners a bad name. When he ran for attorney general against McDonnell four years ago, the NRA endorsed Deeds. But this time the group is backing McDonnell, partly because Deeds is committed to closing the state's gun-show loophole—which lets some purchasers buy weapons without the usual background check.

Because he relentlessly questions Mc-Donnell's stands on social issues, voters want Deeds to answer questions about his own views, something he doesn't always seem comfortable doing. On abortion, McDonnell's position is clear: he opposes it, except when the life of the mother is in danger. Deeds is pro-choice, but with qualifiers. "I voted for parental notification," he says. "I voted to ban late-term abortions where the life and health of the mother are protected."

His attempts to satisfy both sides have left some voters skeptical. At a union event in Danville, an old-timer in a trucker hat raised his hand. "What's your position on abortion?" the man asked. Deeds tried to avoid getting into it. "I trust the people of Virginia," the candidate said. The man looked at him for a moment, then said, "Aren't you a person in Virginia?"

While Deeds picks apart his opponent's controversial opinions, McDonnell has tried—successfully—to change the subject to the economy. His campaign is all about jobs, which polls show people are most concerned about. That's too bad for Deeds, because he knows what it's like to struggle to get by. He spent part of his childhood living in a trailer in Appalachia. Not many Virginians of the modern era grew up the way he did. Hell, not many Virginians in the 1950s grew up the way he did. Millboro still has only one general store, and there isn't a stoplight in the entire county. The average rent at the last census was $186 a month. As Deeds says, "It's a whole different world."

As the campaign enters its final days, all Deeds can do now is keep moving, and talking. In one two-day stretch last month he covered 1,400 miles, half of it in a torrential downpour.

Toward the end of the trek, Deeds, his clothes soaked from the rain, walked around downtown Roanoke, stopping at bars and storefronts. At the Roanoke Weiner Stand, est. 1916, he looked at the wall photos of governors and luminaries who had been there. More than once he said, "When I'm governor, I'll be back to get my picture taken." He seemed tired when he said it. He just seemed tired overall. He talked about going there as a kid and how his friend ordered hot dogs with everything but the dog. He kept staring at the wall of photos with the neon light reflecting through the window, lost in his memories.

If Deeds is feeling the pressure of what losing might mean—the way obsessive political bloggers see it, the fate of the Democratic Party and Obama's very presidency rests on his shoulders—he doesn't show it. But then, he was never very excitable, even as a kid. As we rode along together in his campaign SUV, I was reminded of a day decades ago when I was glad for his levelheadedness. We were teenagers then, and a bunch of us were driving along the winding road through Panther's Gap in his mom's blue Maverick. Suddenly the kid driving the car lost control and we were heading over an embankment when Creigh reached over, grabbed the wheel, and jerked us back up onto the road. The car might have rolled or slammed into a tree if he hadn't acted so quickly.

I asked him about that day. He liked the story, but said he didn't re-member it. He enjoyed talking about the past, but was also wary of becoming too nostalgic. The past he has down cold. It's the future—the very near future in particular—that concerns him now, and how to outsmart all the people telling him, like they used to say back home, "You can't get there from here."