Off-Off Year Elections Help Warner, Hurt Bush?
Most of the political analysis leading up to and now reporting on yesterday’s numerous state and local races focused on what message it would send about national politics. A win by Republicans would help President Bush while a win by Democrats would signal that the country is tired of Republican leadership, an ominous harbinger for the 2006 Congressional elections and the 2008 presidential race. Such analysis is, in a word, nonsense.
Indeed, the WaPo story on the Virginia governor’s race gets it just right:
Virginians elected Democrat Timothy M. Kaine yesterday as the state’s next governor, choosing him to continue the centrist legacy of popular Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) and rejecting the Republican candidate for the state’s top job a second time in four years.
Democrats’ easy successes did not extend to the other statewide races. Republican state Sen. William T. “Bill” Bolling of Hanover County won the lieutenant governor’s race against Democrat Leslie L. Byrne of Fairfax County, the only statewide candidate from populous Northern Virginia. Republican Del. Robert F. “Bob” McDonnell of Virginia Beach and Democrat R. Creigh Deeds of Bath County remained in a tight race for attorney general.
Political observers said the results confirmed a steady westward expansion of such urban concerns as traffic and education. “This is a huge shift of historic proportions for Fairfax County,” said Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D). “You have to play in a moderate, centrist battlefield. Kilgore clearly went on a route too far afield, and he paid the price. . . . You are starting to see the march of moderate politics go out to the outer suburbs.”
By the time Kaine leaves office in 2009, the Democrats will have controlled the governor’s mansion for all but eight of the past 28 years. “We’ve always had this perception that we are a reliable Republican state on presidential elections,” said Republican consultant Chris LaCivita, a former chairman of the Virginia GOP. “We are not a reliable Republican state in governor’s elections.”
From the beginning, Kaine’s strategy was to target voters who like Warner. He repeatedly took credit for the accomplishments of the “Warner-Kaine administration,” and he appeared frequently with the governor.
Kaine also broke with traditional Democratic tactics and talked regularly about his Catholic faith. His standard stump speech mentioned his work as a missionary, and several of his radio and television ads highlighted his Catholicism. “The Bible teaches we can accomplish great things when we work together,” Kaine said in an early radio ad.
Kaine promised tougher evaluations for teachers, universal preschool for 4-year-olds and better coordination of land use and transportation planning. He also proposed exempting the first 20 percent of a home’s value from the property tax.
In the waning days of the campaign, Kaine cast his lot with the slow-growth movement in Virginia’s outer suburbs. In a television ad, he promised to give local governments the ability to say “No” to development if the nearby roads are not sufficient.
Kilgore’s strategy was always to depict Kaine as a liberal who is out of step with mainstream Virginia values. To win, his advisers decided early, Kilgore had to make voters believe that Kaine was not a Warner clone.
As I noted recently, the race was nasty but more-or-less issue free. While I’m sure that President Bush’s low popularity had some impact on the margins, this was a race between two candidates. Kilgore ran a campaign right out of the Lee Atwater playbook, trying to portray Kaine as Michael Dukakis with a Southern accent. He steadily declined in the polls largely because that obviously wasn’t true.
Gubernatorial races seldom reflect on national politics because they are local. In heavily Republican states, the Democrats usually nominate moderate-to-conservative candidates reflective of the state and vice-versa in states dominated by Democrats. Kaine’s win in Virginia no more means Democrats will carry it in 2008 than Michael Bloomberg’s re-election as mayor of NYC signals that New York is now a red state.
In the case of Virginia, too, it is noteworthy that the Republicans did well down ballot. Given that those are races that fewer people pay much attention to and thus reflexively vote based on party loyalty, that would seem a further indication that Kaine-Kilgore was not a referendum on President Bush.
Multi-millionare Jon Corzine’s easy victory over multi-millionaire Doug Forrester in New Jersey, the defeat of all of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ballot initiatives in California, and easy passage of the anti-gay marriage amendment in Texas are likewise all local.
Kaine’s win does, however, strengthen outgoing Governor Mark Warner’s hand and could have an impact on who Democrats nominate in 2008.
Virginia’s quadrennial search for a governor featured neither charismatic personalities nor dominant policy initiatives. But Democrat Timothy M. Kaine’s resounding victory over Republican Jerry W. Kilgore nonetheless provided important political lessons for the commonwealth, and maybe the country.
The outcome marked what feels like a dramatic strengthening of Democratic appeal in Northern Virginia, the state’s richest and most populous region. It showed that Republicans can no longer depend simply on the power of their party to win statewide and demonstrated the dangers of a negative campaign. It presented an intriguing campaign model for Democrats, in which religious faith plays an important role. And most of all it demonstrated the appeal of Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), for whom this could become the first stop of a presidential campaign.
“The real asset that Kaine had was this rather astonishing popularity of Warner,” said Merle Black, a professor who studies Southern politics at Emory University.
That partly is because Kilgore gave voters little else. Unlike successful Republican candidates such as George Allen in 1993 and James S. Gilmore III four years later, Kilgore had no signature issue to offer; his campaign was aimed at establishing his conservative credentials and trying to paint Kaine as too liberal, and it did little to attract independents and Democrats.
For all the talk of political trends and outside forces, elections come down to a comparison of candidates, and Kilgore rarely seemed a confident campaigner. He avoided joint appearances with Kaine and stumbled badly in one memorable confrontation with television journalist Tim Russert as he avoided clearly stating his anti-abortion stance.
Warner’s widespread popularity in a fractious Republican state* makes him a logical 2008 presidential nominee, much in the mold of George W. Bush in 2000. Governors, especially Southern governors, have a huge advantage in running for president over legislators. Of course, Hillary Clinton is no ordinary Senator.
Update (1259): NPR’s Ron Elving agrees.
At the risk of having to turn in my pundit’s badge and gun, let me say what must be said: this week’s off-year election results were not about George W. Bush.
This week’s voting was, in fact, all about the individual races and ballot questions in the several states. And while the Bush administration has official (or at least discernible) positions bearing on many of these contests, those positions bore remarkably little weight.
Voters in Virginia and New Jersey had many motivating factors specific to their states and candidates, not the least of which were the personalities of the candidates themselves. Voters may also have been rejecting some classic examples of ham-fisted negative ads. In Virginia, Democratic nominee Tim Kaine was cast as soft on Hitler because he says his religious beliefs are opposed to capital punishment. In New Jersey, Democratic nominee Jon Corzine had to contend with nasty quotations from his divorced wife. In Virginia, the man behind the results was not Bush but current governor Mark Warner, a term-limited Democrat whose style and success in office clearly carried Kaine — especially in the crucial Northern Virginia suburbs. In New Jersey, now a solid Democratic venue, the heavy financial advantage of Democrat Jon Corzine, an incumbent senator worth hundreds of millions of dollars, outweighed the troubled legacy of his party in the statehouse.
Update: Kevin Aylward observes,
While some would argue that Kaine is riding the coattails of Virginia’s most popular Governor in recent memory – Gov. Mark Warner (D); or that he’s a beneficiary of the independent candidacy of state Sen. Russel Potts (R) who switched from campaigning for himself to campaigning against Kilgore in the final days of the race; the real answer is that Kaine won because Kilgore shot himself in the foot with a late death penalty ad campaign. Kaine strategists admitted as much this evening. It’s particularly instructive that Kilgore finished with 70,000 votes less than the Republican winner in the Lt. Governor race. That vote swing in the Governors race was more than enough to win a tight race against Kaine.
Invoking Adolf Hitler and the death penalty mocked Godwin’s Law of internet discussion threads. In essence USENET old-timer Mike Godwin postulated that as the length of a discussion thread increases, the probability of someone invoking a Nazi reference approaches 1. By tradition the person who invoked the Nazi argument is declared the loser of the thread.
It turns out Godwin’s Law applies equally in politics, just ask Jerry Kilgore…
*Virginia is increasingly two states: A New South state that encompasses almost all of the territory and “Northern Virginia” or NoVa, the ever-expanding D.C. suburbs and exurbs. The former is very Republican and the latter increasingly Democratic. My former home of Loudoun County was rural and reliably Republican a decade ago. It is neither now.