Labor and the working class have a big stake in the election for governor of Virginia this November.

The Democratic Candidate, State Senator Creigh Deeds, came from behind to defeat two impressive adversaries in the primary. He faces former Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell in November. Actually, the two have gone head to head before, in the 2005 election for Attorney General, which McDonnell won.

Virginia is the former heartland of the Confederacy. In the 1950s, Virginia’s politics were so reactionary that at one point the state shut down all pubic schools rather than accept the decision of Brown versus the Board of Education and let Black and white children study together. There are still plenty of white Virginians who will openly say that the wrong side won the Civil War. However, in recent years there has been a gradual, but notable, move to the center. This has been fueled by demographic and economic changes, with the Washington D.C. suburbs of Northern Virginia plus other urban areas leading the way. As a result, Virginia now has two Democratic Senators, a Democratic Governor and a Democratic majority in the State Senate, and in the 2008 elections the Democrats picked up 3 congressional seats. And the state went for Obama!

Term limits prevent the present Democratic governor, Tim Kaine, from running again.
The Democratic candidate, Deeds, is behind in polling, and his campaign is striving to highlight the extreme right wing positions of McDonnell, while presenting himself as more of a moderate or centrist. McDonnell’s campaign is focusing instead on attacks on the Obama administration’s health reform, cap and trade policies and the similar things.

McDonnell very much represents the old guard. He got his law degree from Regent University, affiliated with extremist evangelical leader Pat Robertson, whom he considers a friend. While a student there in 1989, at 34 years of age, he wrote a graduate thesis which has now resurfaced as a campaign issue. The paper took a hard line on homosexuality and also called women who work outside the home “a detriment” to the family, as well as characterizing a 1972 Supreme Court decision protecting the right of married couples to use birth control as “illogical”. McDonnell has claimed that these are no longer his views, but in his political career in the Virginia House of Delegates and as Attorney General he has been a strong foe of abortion and gay marriage.

In the controversy that arose about the college paper, another dimension of McDonnell’s right-wing ideology is not getting as much coverage, namely his anti-labor and anti-worker positions. McDonnell extols something which some other Virginians are coming to consider an embarrassment, namely its status as a “right to work” state, which has led Virginia to have a unionization rate in private employment of only 4.1%. In the usual twisty rhetoric of “right to work” promoters, he phrases this in terms of being against forcing workers into unions. Naturally, he is vociferous in opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act. He has also has opposed Virginia’s acceptance of $123 million in federal stimulus money, intended to extend benefits for the unemployed, on the grounds that it would create an “unfunded federal mandate”. McDonnell’s justification for all of these things is the old chestnut that Virginia attracts more job creating industry by having pro-business, low tax and anti-labor policies that are attractive to investors.

McDonnell also advocates drilling for oil off Virginia’s coast.

So it is not surprising that organized labor is putting a major effort into supporting the Democratic Candidate, Creigh Deeds. The Virginia AFL-CIO, SEIU, AFSCME and other unions are mobilizing, and according to Alex Isenstadt, writing on the website, labor has already spent $600,000 in campaign contributions for deeds for Deeds.

So if McDonnell is clearly an extremist, and if Virginia has been easily electing Democrats to statewide office recently, and if labor and other progressive forces are going all-out for Deeds, why is Deeds trailing in the polls? And more importantly, how can this be reversed?

The Deeds campaign seems to think that this is because of the various national controversies about health care and the economy. But it is also true that Deeds has not been doing much to distinguish himself from McConnell on some key issues.

For example, McDonnell, unsurprisingly, presents himself as a hard-liner on immigration, promising to hook up the state police with the federal 287 (g) program, which trains police in immigration enforcement and allows them to act as immigration agents. Fearing that this would greatly increase racial and ethnic profiling, the current governor, Tim Kaine, has declined to do this. The Deeds campaign issued a statement disagreeing with McDonnell’s 287 (g) idea, but only because it would be too expensive and the federal government should be doing immigration enforcement. And in the past, Deeds has taken positions on immigration not too different from those of McDonnell, voting to make Virginia an “English Only” state and to deny benefits, including in-state college tuition rates, to undocumented immigrants.

On economic issues, Deeds has not been emphasizing labor rights, but rather highlighting a series of projects such as tax incentives for businesses that create jobs, more job training, putting more money into transportation and similar things.

No doubt, this cautious stance by the Deeds campaign is intended to keep the candidate from being “swift boated” by the howling mobs that are currently attacking the Obama administration on health care and other things. But Deeds and his supporters should remember that on a much bolder program, Obama won Virginia last year. Elections are very much about turnout, which means that candidates have to fire up enthusiasm in their support bases. There is still time between now and November for Deeds to clearly distinguish himself from McDonnell as a champion of working class and people’s interests.