Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Meanwhile, Back In the Commonwealth

With so much else going on, I've neglected to blog about the gubernatorial race--one of two in this off-year--in Virginia, featuring Democrat Tim Kaine and a Republican with the unfortunate surname of (Jerry) Kilgore.

The race is now heating up and heading into the home stretch. And the dynamics are very interesting.

Virginia is a state with a small but significant built-in Republican advantage in statewide races. Yet incumbent, term-limited Democratic Governor Mark Warner is extremely popular, and George W. Bush's approval ratings here have dropped well below 50 percent.

Both gubernatorial candidates have notable strengths and weaknesses. Lt. Gov. Kaine is a former Richmond mayor and one-time civil rights lawyer--not the best biography for a statewide candidate in Virginia. Moreover, he's a "seamless garment" Catholic who opposes both abortion and the death penalty, though he's repeatedly pledged to enforce existing laws on both topics. Kaine is also very smart, very disciplined, and has pretty much run circles around Jerry Kilgore on the few occasions when the Republican has agreed to debate. He's come up with a credible proposal for holding down property taxes (skyrocketing in the D.C. suburbs of northern Virginia), and is now accentuating a plan for universal access to pre-K education. And most of all, Kaine will benefit from support from Warner, who is expected to expend some serious political capital on his preferred successor down the stretch.

Kilgore is firmly aligned with the anti-tax, Christian Right faction of the Virginia GOP, which has seen better days, but is still capable of delivering a virtually uncontested nomination. His main strength (other than a pretty-boy appearance and an ability to cheerfully perform every inane campaign stunt in the books) is his base in southwest Virginia, a normally Republican region that Warner carried in 2001.

The wild card in the race is independent Russell Potts, a renegade Republican state senator from the Shenandoah Valley who supported Warner's budget and tax deal, and is basically running to Kaine's left on taxes and abortion. Despite intensive efforts by the Washington Post editorial page to hype his candidacy (the Post is strangely angry at Kaine for not supporting another major tax increase to deal with traffic congestion), Potts doesn't seem to be catching on.

The two major candidates are evenly matched financially, and in terms of national support.

A poll by the Post released last weekend confirmed the conventional wisdom of the race by showing Kilgore up over Kaine by a small but statistically significant 4 percent (7 percent among likely voters), with Potts getting about 5 percent, and 9 percent still undecided. Nearly half of voters indicated their preferences were fluid, and name ID for both candidates was surprisingly low, given their recent ubiquity.

The regional breakdown of the poll showed Kilgore with big leads in the three most conservative regions of the state--Southside, the Valley, and Southwest Virginia--and Kaine ahead in Central Virginia and Hampton Roads. If there was a surprise in the poll, it was that Kilgore is running nearly even with Kaine in Northern Virginia, mainly due to big margins in the exurbs. This showing may be attributable to Kilgore's noisily abrasive exploitation of an immigration controversy in the area, where local officials approved a publicly financed gathering site for day laborers, often new immigrants from Central America. Aside from the usual conservative line about immigration enforcement, Kilgore has luridly suggested links between Hispanic gangs and al Qaeda. No kidding.

The same poll showed Warner is the most popular politician in the state, and also showed heavy support for Kaine's pre-K proposal.

To the extent that Kilgore's lead depends on a generic Republican advantage in the Commonwealth, the recent troubles of the Bush administration, and the likelihood that late-deciding voters may treat the election as in part a national referendum, are potentially bad news for this most generic of GOP conservatives. There's also a statewide-televised candidate debate on tap in early October, which could accentuate Kaine's verbal and intellectual advantage.

The crucial X-factor in this race may well be Mark Warner. It's no secret he is considering a presidential race in 2008. And while potential presidential primary voters won't care about what happens in the contest to succeed him in Virginia, Warner's already formidable insider reputation for political skill would definitely be enhanced if he succeeds in helping Kaine pull off a come-from-behind victory.

Whatever happens, people outside Virginia are likely to view this election in the context of national politics; with Jon Corzine now almost certain to romp in the other off-year gubernatorial election in New Jersey, Virginia's contest will determine whether Democrats achieve a portentous sweep or an ambiguous split.

For those of us who live in the Commonwealth, the stakes are higher: will we continue Warner's remarkable record of accomplishment, or go back to the days when GOP governors seemed determined to make Virginia a laboratory for bad, mean-spirited and deficit-ridden government?

For me, of course, this is really personal. As a resident of Virginia, I just don't want to spend the next four years explaining that I am neither biologically or politically related to Jerry Kilgore.

Please help me, my fellow citizens.
-- Posted at 11:56 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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