357-vote gorilla: Deeds won't concede AG

Election night returns show you ahead by a sliver in a race too close to call. You go to bed thinking you're the winner, but the next morning you find out the race you've been running for years isn't over, and it'll be weeks before the official recount determines the winner.

Al Gore in 2000?

Nope, that's the story of state Senator Creigh Deeds in 2005, and of one of the closest state elections in recent memory. Democrat Deeds' battle with Republican Delegate Bob McDonnell for attorney general has come as close as a 357-vote difference out of nearly 2 million cast, the oddest chapter yet in this year's election.

"When I left the hotel Tuesday about 1:37am, I was ahead by 1,200," says Deeds from his home in Millboro Springs on Veterans Day, three days after the election. "When I woke up I was down 3,400, and now it's 900."

The candidates knew it was going to be close. Throughout the race, polls showed McDonnell with a slight edge that spiked to 8 percent a few weeks before the election before dropping back to a few points within the standard margin of error.

"I think Bob McDonnell was even more surprised than we were," says Deeds' campaign manager, Peter Jackson.

"We looked at various scenarios that made it difficult to predict," says McDonnell spokesman John Phillippe. "We knew a lot of our reports would depend on turnout for the top of the ticket."

The Virginia State Board of Elections will certify the vote November 28, and if the margin between the two candidates is within one percent, the loser can go to circuit court in Richmond to petition for a recount at his expense. If the margin is one-half percent or less, the state picks up the recount tab, Jackson explains.

At press time, McDonnell's lead had migrated to 357 votes, well below the threshold for a recount.

That didn't stop McDonnell from declaring victory November 9 before the last unofficial returns were in, announcing that he was confident he was going to be attorney general. From the Board of Elections numbers, "We thought we had a victory," says Phillippe.

"Just irresponsible," says Jackson, "given that all the votes haven't been counted, and he may not be certified as attorney general."

Both McDonnell and Deeds, whose Senate district includes Albemarle County, have announced recount teams– and transition teams poised to leap into action once the recount wraps mid-December or so.

The big question for many election-watchers is why Tim Kaine's nearly six-point win over Republican Jerry Kilgore didn't trickle down the ticket to his fellow Dems, lieutenant governor candidate Leslie Byrne and Deeds.

Kaine's lead was just a tad shy of being enough to have the coattail effect and pull his running mates into the win column with him, says Center for Politics director Larry Sabato.

And the broadly split ticket– with conservative Republican Bill Bolling narrowly nabbing the lieutenant governor's seat and McDonnell ahead by a hair for the AG seat– isn't that unusual, says Sabato, noting that Kaine's father-in-law, former Governor Linwood Holton, didn't bring his running mates with him, either.

Only a tiny percentage of the two million citizens voting marked their ballots for Democrat Kaine and two Republicans, says Sabato.

"Why? Because Virginia is a Republican state, and people's state identities come out in the lower ballot," Sabato says. "What's unusual is that the Republicans barely scraped by." Bolling edged Byrne by a measly two percent, and there's that 357-vote difference in the AG race.

How badly did former Governor Doug Wilder's refusal to endorse Deeds hurt the Democrat?

In a race this close, "everything has an effect," says Deeds.

"I'm sure [Wilder] made 904 votes' worth of difference," Sabato said November 11, when that was McDonnell's lead.

"I think that might have been a minor factor," says retiring Delegate Mitch Van Yahres.

Others are not so sure. Albemarle Democrat Party head Fred Hudson blames the damage on television ads that McDonnell ran for a week or so before Deeds responded. He suggests that other endorsements Deeds got offset the missing Wilder backing. "I wouldn't say that was a factor," Hudson says.

Wilder and Deeds may not agree on one-handgun-a-month sales, but they do have a recount in common. Wilder faced that when he was elected Virginia's first African American governor in 1989, which "Wilder won by 6,000 votes," says Deeds. And Joseph Kearfott, the lawyer who led Wilder's recount team, will be heading up Deeds'.

Sabato also cites "ballot fatigue." That's when people cast a vote for governor but not lieutenant governor or attorney general. One to two percent typically don't vote down the ballot, and in this election, according to the Board of Elections website, 40,000 voters who marked their ballots for governor did not choose an AG.

While ballot fatigue may have been a factor in the race, candidate fatigue certainly has set in now.

After two years of minimal sleep, Deeds admits he's "emotionally and physically spent.

"I need finality in my life," he says, "but with so many people invested in this, I have to see it through."

He adds, "It's not the way I wanted it to be."

Even with the uncertainty that's going to linger through the holidays, a season Deeds had looked forward to as down time with his family, he stays on message: "I'm confident I'm going to win."


If he does, the so-called "Emily Couric" state senate seat, which Deeds won in a special election after the popular legislator's untimely death in 2001, will be up for grabs. And Charlottesville voters, among others in the wide-ranging 25th District, may find themselves going back for another special election.

Bob McDonnell declared himself Virginia's next attorney general when his lead was around 2,000 votes. It's since shrunk as close as 357 votes, according to the state Board of Elections' uncertified count.


State Senator Creigh Deeds thought the race for AG would be over November 8.