Story by Chris Graham
The numbers at the top of the page on Election Night in Virginia were nothing if not surprising.
Republicans Bill Bolling and Bob McDonnell swept to apparent victories in the lieutenant-governor and attorney-general races, respectively. Meanwhile, GOP candidates were holding on to a solid majority in the House of Delegates – likely a 58-seat majority in the 100-member body.
So how was it that Jerry Kilgore – buoyed by an Election Eve endorsement by the leader of the free world – lost to a Democrat that he deemed “too liberal” to lead the Commonwealth in a virtual landslide?
“It’s tough to put your finger on one reason for the Tim Kaine win, and I think also for the margin of victory, which for a Democrat in Virginia is almost a landslide. It was not quite a point better than Mark Warner’s victory in 2001,” noted Matt Smyth, an analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
Some point, when asked the question, to Kaine’s strong showing in the Northern Virginia exurbs – the southernmost counties on the fringe of the heavily Democratic region. Others highlight the relatively weak pull that Kilgore had in Western Virginia – where Kilgore’s numbers that generally ran in the low- to mid-60s were down significantly from George W. Bush’s 70-plus-percent showings a year ago.
One thing that most seem to agree on, though, is that the Kilgore campaign lost it when his campaign went after Kaine for his personal opposition to the death penalty.
“Those TV ads were the turning point,” said Mark Rozell, a political-science professor at George Mason University who was written extensively on Republican Party politics.
“The death-penalty ads shifted the tenor of the campaign. Kilgore had had either a significant lead going into the early fall, or a marginal lead in the polls. But after those ads, the campaign momentum shifted to Kaine. Voters expressed a great deal of disgust with the tone of this campaign, and the polls suggested that more voters by far blamed Kilgore for the negative tone. I think those death-penalty ads were the basis for that judgement,” Rozell told The Augusta Free Press.
The negative drift
“I heard all day from people at the polls, strong Republicans, about how they wish it hadn’t gotten so negative. I think that’s what really hurt them statewide,” said Del. Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave, the chair of the Republican caucus in the Virginia House of Delegates.
Landes’ leadership role included oversight of House campaigns statewide. He said the focus at the House level was on running “positive, issue-oriented campaigns.”
“And candidates who ran those kinds of campaigns were successful. But where candidates didn’t talk about the issues that the voters were interested in, they weren’t successful,” Landes told the AFP.
“Jerry is a nice guy. He’s a very qualified person. But people never got that sense statewide because they just saw the negative about Tim Kaine and not the positive about Jerry Kilgore,” Landes said.
Agreeing with that assessment is Staunton Republican Del. Chris Saxman, who outpolled Kilgore in the 20th House District en route to a win over Democratic Party challenger Bruce Elder.
“Jerry, in the end, had a hard time getting his message across, because what he was saying was, Tim Kaine isn’t this. What he should have been saying was, Jerry Kilgore is this. Whatever that was. I think that message got lost,” Saxman told the AFP.
Mount Solon Republican Sen. Emmett Hanger said he felt as well that the Kilgore camp “put the focus on Tim Kaine almost too much, in my opinion.”
“I don’t like in campaigning even to mention my opponent’s name,” Hanger told the AFP. “Unfortunately, the consultants have discovered that it seems to work to tear down your opponent. It’s been stated that they will continue to do that as long as it works. I would suggest in this instance that it didn’t work.
“There were a number of people who felt that the tone of the campaign had just gotten out of hand and that they would go with the candidate who was the least responsible for that happening,” Hanger said.
The Warner factor
Predating the death-penalty ads was the conscious effort on the part of the Kaine campaign to align its fortunes with those of Gov. Warner, a popular Democrat whose approval ratings have consistenly been in the 75 percent to 80 percent range in recent months.
“Kaine deserves some credit for winning. But a lot of that credit, as he shared the campaign stage with Warner on Election Night, that’s a big reason for the Kaine win,” Smyth told the AFP.
“Virginia history, at least recent history, has shown that voters are willing to reward a popular incumbent with a term for his party successor, essentially. It’s been that way for the past several cycles. I think that plays a lot into it,” Smyth said.
“This election was in many ways a referendum on Mark Warner. Governor’s elections often are in Virginia. That’s to me the biggest issue. Warner’s popularity was far more significant in this outcome than Bush’s lack of popularity or anything that Kilgore did in the campaign,” University of Mary Washington political-science professor Stephen Farnsworth told the AFP.
Saxman was more to the point.
“Do I think Tim Kaine won this race? No. Mark Warner won this race,” Saxman said. “Tim Kaine went around the state saying that ‘I was Mark Warner’s right-hand man.’ I don’t mean to cast aspersions on him, but this election was a referendum on Mark Warner and his tenure as governor. Case closed.”
“One view on this is that Kilgore lost the race in a sense not because of anything that they did specifically, but because of what they weren’t able to do. They weren’t able to capture voters with one single, big issue that was able to rally voters as a reason to change parties at the top of the ticket,” Smyth said.
“I don’t see that Kilgore had a central campaign message or theme giving voters a reason to vote for him. Largely his campaign was about why not to vote for Tim Kaine,” Rozell said.
“With Jim Gilmore, people said, ‘car tax.’ With George Allen, it was ‘eliminate parole.’ There was an identifiable issue that people thought could make a difference in their lives, that they associated with the Republican candidate in those elections. What was the central issue that drove people to vote for Jerry Kilgore this time?” Rozell said.
It certainly didn’t help the Kilgore effort that Republicans just up Interstate 95 from Richmond are facing any number of political controversies – from the mess involving the indictment of a former White House aide to a bungled United States Supreme Court nomination to the continuing fervor over the prosecution of the war in Iraq.
“Kilgore was campaigning into a terrrible headwind,” Farnsworth said. “Mark Warner had 80 percent approval, and he was campaigning aggressively for his Democratic successor. President Bush had half the approval level of Mark Warner in Virginia, and all the scandals of recent months, the Miers nomination, the bungled Katrina relief, the indictment of Scooter Libby, the continuing uncertainty over Iraq.
“That all adds up to a very difficult environment for a Republican to run for statewide office,” Farnsworth said.
“This election coincided with the low point of the Bush presidency, and Bush’s visit not only didn’t help, but it may have actually energized the Democratic base, especially in Northern Virginia,” Rozell added.
The bottom line
“Virginia is still clearly a Republican-leaning state, but obviously there are issues out there where they decided that they feel more comfortable with, at least as the campaign unfolded, Tim Kaine rather than Jerry Kilgore,” Hanger said.
Landes said that issue – as well as the bigger issue regarding the fact that Republicans have lost back-to-back gubernatorial elections in red-state Virginia – will have to be addressed.
“The party needs to talk about that. Hopefully they’ll be listening to the folks who were successful, whether it’s at the House level, Bill Bolling’s campaign, Bob McDonnell. Those campaigns were more positive in focus in general. And they were successful,” Landes said.