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.
TDS Strategy Memos
Latest Research from:
By Ed Kilgore
While mulling some recent material from The Bulwark, I thought I’d explain something to the converted “Never Trumpers” the outlet represents, and did so at New York:
For a while now I’ve had a guilty-pleasure reading habit: The Bulwark, that semi-official outlet of Never Trumpers who view themselves as having definitively broken with the GOP thanks to their former party’s thralldom to Donald J. Trump. I share its contributors’ belief that they (the tribe usefully described by Miller as Red Dog Democrats) represent not just a self-promoting claque of elite scribblers but a real if marginal faction of the Democratic Party, having burned a lot of bridges on their way out of the GOP. Their views appear to parallel those of a significant number of suburban Republicans and independents who voted Democratic in 2018 and 2020. And given the very close balance between voters of the two parties, as reflected most recently in 2020, Democrats really can’t afford to contemptuously reject any potential adherents, however alien or even repugnant they might find their backgrounds.
So it’s understandable when Bulwark co-founder Charlie Sykes expresses frustration that Democrats refuse to consider their pleas for policy concessions on grounds of holding old grudges:
“The spending. The wokeness. The repeal of the Hyde Amendment. I could go on …
“These are difficult times for folks on the center-right, who’ve tried to join Democrats in a loose alliance to protect the Republic from Trumpism …
“Litmus tests are applied: it’s not enough to be pro-democracy, NTers are also expected to embrace the elements of the progressive agenda — from free community college, to abortion, rent moratoriums, police funding, transgenderism, CRT, social spending, and the candidacy of Greta Thunberg for sainthood.”
Sykes fears it’s all very personal, and warns, “If you cancel moderates/conservatives for their past sins, you don’t have a coalition.”
Here’s the thing, though: It’s not really about the Red Dogs. Yes, I’m sure it’s been tough for them to watch Democrats largely come together around a legislative program that’s significantly more progressive than the one advanced by the Obama administration. But Democrats have been coalescing around the basics of the Build Back Better agenda for some time now. That the famously moderate Joe Biden now embraces it is a sign of how the party has slowly evolved, not some sort of betrayal or surrender to the left. And anyone who paid close attention to the 2020 presidential primaries should have understood that there is less distance between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders than between Joe Biden and the Joe Biden of the 1990s.
Part of what has happened is simply a resolution of internal conflicts among Democrats that left them defensive and at times incoherent. A classic example is one that Sykes mentioned: abortion policy. For years, Democrats claimed to value reproductive rights even as they accepted significant limitations on them: e.g., the Hyde Amendment, which made abortion services, unlike any other medical services, ineligible for any sort of federal support. That amendment, along with acceptance of some largely symbolic restrictions on rare late-term abortions, and the whole “safe, legal, and rare” messaging introduced by Bill Clinton, represented concessions to a significant bloc of Democratic voters and Democratic pols who did not recognize reproductive rights at all.
That has changed over time. Anti-abortion Democratic politicians are a rare and shrinking breed, and there are now significantly fewer anti-abortion Democratic voters than there are pro-choice Republicans. Most Democrats, including Joe Biden, have made the leap into a more coherent and unified position. They aren’t going to turn back the clock to satisfy ex-Republicans, but they aren’t insisting on a “litmus test” just to annoy or exclude them, either. The same could be said for other policy tenets once beloved by a significant number of Democrats — from fiscal hawkishness to armed interventionism to an openness to “entitlement reform” — that remain attractive to the newest proto-Democrats. As for the idea that Democrats are some sort of rigid ideological cult: Come on, seriously? Look at what’s going on with the attempted enactment of the Build Back Better reconciliation bill. If this is an intolerant and exclusive political party, I’d hate to see a loosey-goosey one try to function. It may just be that the issues Red Dogs fret about may lie outside the still relatively loose bounds of party unity.
This doesn’t mean Red Dogs should despair, but it may mean another painful reevaluation of priorities, recognizing that most have already had to sacrifice a lot of old allegiances and even the habitual language used to make sense of the political world. In many respects, the Never Trumpers resemble their spiritual (and in some cases biological) predecessors, the neo-conservatives. These were people who broke with the Democratic Party out of a conviction that Democratic views on national security made continued party loyalty impossible. But most of them retained many views that horrified their new Republican allies until they accepted the inevitable role of a factional minority and grew to accommodate or even share the policy positions and ideological language of the GOP, which was increasingly dominated by conservatives with their own ideological-consistency demands.
Most Red Dogs have no illusions about the party they’ve left and understand their constituencies are too small to form a third force or demand concessions from a position of strength. Most, I suppose, will get used to the strange and sometimes lurid landscape of the Donkey Party. Others will embrace the posture of the gadfly, the people of no party or coalition. But it’s really not personal. It’s just politics.