Story by Chris Graham
Republican Party gubernatorial nominee Jerry Kilgore has been relentless in recent weeks in his attacks on Democratic Party rival Tim Kaine on one hot-button social issue, the death penalty.
Look for Kaine to fight back at Kilgore by highlighting another hot-button social issue – abortion – in the 2005 campaign’s final days.
“The people in Virginia who care deeply about abortion have paid attention to where Jerry has been, and he has made a lot of people mad on both sides of that issue, by not being candid about his position,” Kaine told The Augusta Free Press in an interview conducted after a campaign stop in Waynesboro on Tuesday.
A day later, Kaine highlighted the abortion issue in a speech to a women’s group in Arlington – in a move that many political observers feel was an obvious attempt to capitalize on the controversy over what a newly constituted United States Supreme Court would do with regard to Roe v. Wade.
Questions have been raised about what Kilgore himself would do in the event that Roe v. Wade was overturned – which would return to the individual states the right to decide the fate of abortion rights inside their borders.
Kilgore has sidestepped the issue in political debates with Kaine, dismissing it as a “hypothetical” question at events sponsored by the Virginia Bar Association and the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce before conceding that he, like Kaine, would not favor the “criminalization of women” at a University of Virginia Center for Politics debate earlier this month.
Campaign observers are wondering in particular if Kilgore, as Kaine has implied, is trying to march to the middle on the abortion issue – and whether or not the apparent move to the middle could end up de-energizing pro-life voters, an expected key constituency in a winning Kilgore electoral coalition.
“Pro-life voters understand that he is the pro-life candidate, that he believes strongly and adamantly in a culture of life, and what Jerry Kilgore was saying at that debate, just as he has always done, he will always work within the parameters of the life to encourage a culture of life,” Kilgore campaign spokesman Tucker Martin told the AFP.
“The pro-life community in Virginia knows that Jerry Kilgore is the pro-life candidate in this race. He has worked for a culture of life his entire professional career. And he always will work for a culture of life. He is the pro-life candidate running in this campaign,” Martin said.
George Mason University political-science professor Mark Rozell sees the same phenomenon being at play.
“The pro-life voters are going to come out for Kilgore because they perceive him as the much better candidate on their issues, and second they understand that the states may someday become the major battlegrounds on the abortion issue. I think that they very well understand that abortion politics plays a huge role now in the states, and it’s not just merely a federal issue,” Rozell told the AFP.
Rozell believes the Kilgore strategy of keeping mum on what he would do in the event that Roe v. Wade were overturned is calculated to “keep the support of the pro-life voters without alienating the larger political middle.”
“There has been a deliberate strategy on the part of religious conservative leaders in this state since the 1990s to convey the message to their supporters not to push their Republican candidates too hard,” said Rozell, the coauthor of The Values Vote? The Christian Right in the 2004 Elections.
“I think that’s the right strategy, because in the 1980s in particular, the religious conservatives in the Republican Party pushed their gubernatorial nominees too hard, I think, on the abortion issue, and enabled the Democrats to characterize Republicans as social extremists. By the time of George Allen’s campaign in ’93, the religious conservatives had gotten much smarter about how to play issues in general-election campaigns,” Rozell said.
Pro-life voters are well aware of what is going on behind the scenes politically, to hear Brenda Fastabend, the president of the Virginia Society for Human Life, tell it.
“Pro-life voters know to educate and inform themselves before they go to the polls to vote. And those who have done that already know that the positions of the two candidates are quite different,” Fastabend told the AFP.
“Most people who are informed and have a pro-life position would be in support of Jerry Kilgore, based on his record and based on what he says his position is,” Fastabend said.
“Should the Supreme Court decision be overturned, and we certainly hope that that day comes, or that it’s changed or modified in some fashion, then certainly the state legislature would have the prerogative of making laws without having to fear them being found unconstitutional at the federal level,” Fastabend said.
“Elections are the key. Incrementally getting pro-life people into office, and pro-abortion people out of office, is what will make this effort successful,” Fastabend said.
Whether or not the attempt by Kilgore to reach out to moderate voters will be successful is a different story.
“One way you could look at this is to assume that most pro-choice voters would be expected to have made up their minds already, and by and large they would be expected to align with the Democratic Party because of their views on this issue and other issues,” University of Virginia Center for Politics analyst Matt Smyth told the AFP.
“It could be a tough sell, but there is potential to pick up some support from moderate pro-choice voters who are undecided. Whether that would be enough to make up for the handful of conservatives that you might lose by playing that strategy remains to be seen,” Smyth said.