Politics & Policy

Virginia Is For Close-Race Lovers

Kaine or Kilgore? Who knows.

Virginians go to the polls today (open from 6 A.M. to 7 P.M.) to vote for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and candidates for the house of delegates.

The big fight everyone’s focused on is the gubernatorial race where Governor Mark Warner’s Democratic successor, Tim Kaine, is running against Republican Attorney General and George Allen Protégé Jerry Kilgore. To make matters more interesting, a third-party candidate, Russ Potts, has decided to waste his (and our) time tilting at electoral windmills and scrambling political calculations. Potts is a Republican in Name Only from Winchester.

What will happen when the polls close tonight is anyone’s guess.

There are essentially two schools of thought among conservative pollsters and political consultants here in the state. Working in Old Town, Alexandria–the containment area for Republican political consultants–I have heard it all.

Kaine Wins

The first school of thought can best be described by its gloom. This group looks at the public polling showing a deadlocked race with a slight Kaine advantage and smells a defeat. They argue rightly that the national political winds are in Kilgore’s face and that the president’s low job-approval ratings and negative numbers for Republicans generically are making it a tough climb for him. They point out that Governor Mark Warner, whose only real claim to fame is raising taxes after he promised not to, is popular in Virginia because the state is doing well economically. They note that Democrat Tim Kaine has done a good job of concealing his liberalism in a center-right state, and are frustrated at the apparent backfiring of one of Kilgore’s attack ads on Kaine’s ludicrous death-penalty stance. (He’s morally against it and defended death-row inmates as a lawyer, but he says he’ll sign death warrants as governor.) Bottom line: If Kilgore were a stock, this group of consultants would short him.

Kaine Doesn’t

The other school of thought admits that the national political environment is hurting Kilgore and that Governor Warner’s popularity is helping Kaine. They admit that the polling shows the race to be very close, with Democrat Kaine taking a slight lead over the past few weeks. But, they say that a Kaine win still doesn’t compute for three reasons.

First, they note that Virginia is behaviorally a Republican state that has voted for George Allen first as governor and then as senator, has a large Republican congressional delegation and has voted for a Republican-dominated legislature in Richmond. And finally, Virginia is a red state that has voted twice for Bush. In 2004 Bush won with just under 54 percent of the vote: 1,716,959 Bush to 1,454,742 Kerry. Even with a wind in his face, this group states, Kilgore should be able to win here.

Secondly, they note that the polling in Virginia has tended to under-represent Republican strength and exaggerate Democratic strength election after election. In 2001, everyone was sure that millionaire Mark Warner, having outspent Republican Mark Earley heavily, would score a big win. People were talking about a wipeout. The polling suggested that Warner would win by a landslide, but he didn’t. He took just over 52 percent of the vote after massively outspending a weak Republican candidate and running ads claiming that he was a fiscal conservative who would not raise taxes. It’s because of this, and similar experiences in past gubernatorial elections, that consultants now talk about a late Republican surge in the state where conservatives and soft Republicans “come home.” This assumes that the polling is accurate. In fact, these voters may have been home all along. The bottom line here is that polling showed the Gilmore-Breyer race to be close and it wasn’t. Gilmore won almost 56 percent of the vote. So, the thinking goes, Kilgore should win any race in which the polling shows him to be tied.

And finally, this group argues that the x-factor in the race is a deep and new Republican commitment to get-out-the-vote efforts in the state. This is undoubtedly true and difficult to factor. The word on the street is that the Republican National Committee has spent big, very big, on GOTV operations in the state, and it shows. My conservative friends across the state report receiving a mailing each day for the past week, mostly paid for by the RNC. My friends in Haymarket, Clifton, and Roanoke have received between three and five recorded and personal GOTV/Persuasion calls since Sunday night. And most report having been visited by a campaign worker urging them to vote for the Republican ticket and leaving behind a very slick door hanger that includes customized precinct location information, paid for by the RNC. Our home in western Fairfax County has been deluged by Kilgore/RNC direct mail and visited by a member of the 72-hour squad. This has simply not been done by Republicans in Virginia before. It wasn’t done in 2004. So, the thinking here is that this type of turnout operation could, on its own, put Kilgore in the governor’s mansion.

Cautiously Optimistic

As a natural skeptic and pessimist who knows the Republican party is the “stupid party” and has seen it pull defeat out of the jaws of victory on too many occasions, I have my doubts. Kaine is liberal trial lawyer masquerading as a moderate. He should be an easy target. But Kilgore has, on some instances, seemed more interested in painting his campaign in pastels instead of bold conservative colors. He did not sign the tax pledge, he hasn’t played up his plan to limit property taxes, and he’s been quiet about his campaign pledge to require that all tax increases be put to a vote of the people in a referendum. These are strong and popular conservative stands that he has not highlighted. And it is frustrating.

And yet, I am in the second camp. Virginia is behaviorally a center-right state with a history of Republican candidates doing better in the voting booth than they do in the crosstabs (crosstabs are data books that pollsters use to analyze the detailed results of surveys). The 2004 elections have made me a believer in intensive Republican GOTV. We’ll see tonight how well-placed my faith in it is.

And what of the consequences?

A Kilgore win will be ignored by the media. It won’t fit their template. A Kilgore win would almost certainly spell the demise of the Virginia Democratic party, as it would be locked out of power, without a fundraising base and with a vigorous opponent pushing a conservative agenda. But, the national media won’t care about this.

A Kaine win would be Christmas Day for the Washington Post, the mainstream media, and the DNC. No matter how close the win might be, it would be trumpeted as the end of the Bush presidency and the bellwether for a resurgent Democratic party in 2006. Of course, at the state level, it would mean almost nothing. If he wins, Tim Kaine would still face a Republican legislature and may end up with a Republican Lt. Governor and attorney general. His only real job would be vetoing conservative legislation that would better enforce immigration laws and protect the electoral process.

Finally, a big Kaine win, 52 percent or more, would be a very loud wake-up call for Republicans. The 2006 cycle currently looks tough for Republicans. But for the fact that there are few open seats and a handful of competitive congressional districts that have not been gerrymandered by either side, Republicans would be facing a much less dire threat to their congressional leadership. Wake up call or not, it is certainly high time that Republicans in Congress pick high-profile and defining fights with their Democrat opponents on taxes, immigration, and values issues.

Robert Moran is a vice president at Republican polling firm Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates. He is an NRO contributor.

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