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
I ran across a story on faulty focus group memories of Trump, and I wrote about the implications at New York.
As an unpopular president facing a sour electorate, Joe Biden really needs to make 2024 a comparative election rather than a straight referendum on his presidency. Luckily for him, his likely general-election opponent, Donald Trump, is equally unpopular for reasons that are quite vivid. He’s as well known as Biden, and he works very hard to reinforce the traits that might make an undecided voter (even one unhappy with Biden) reluctant to put him back in the White House. So half of Biden’s work in drawing contrasts is done for him, and part of the other half is made easy for him by Trump’s strongest supporters, the “deplorables” (to use the Hillary Clinton term that has become a MAGA badge of honor) who enjoy shocking the world by advertising their hero’s most questionable characteristics.
It is becoming apparent, however, that Trump’s potential coalition is being augmented by low-information voters with a hazy understanding of the Trumpier features of the 45th president’s record, character, and agenda. By that I do not mean the non-college-educated voters who make up so large a part of the Trump base. Many if not most of them are pretty educated about their candidate. But there’s evidence that disengaged and/or deeply alienated folks who may nonetheless vote in a presidential election (if not any others) don’t know as much about Trump as you might assume, as the New York Times’ Patrick Healey has observed:
“Our latest Times Opinion focus group discussion with 13 undecided independent voters included a striking result: 11 of the 13 said they would vote for Donald Trump if the election were held now, and only two said they would vote for President Biden. The reason: overwhelming concern about the economy.
“But I was less surprised by the big vote for Trump than by this: The group didn’t blame Trump for things he was responsible or accountable for.
“For instance, several people linked their economic troubles to COVID, but they didn’t put any blame on Trump for that. Some were upset with the end of abortion rights nationally, but they didn’t tie that to Trump’s Supreme Court appointments. Several wanted bipartisanship, but they didn’t blame Trump for his hand in sinking the recent bipartisan border deal. One person, a Latina, blamed Trump for worsening racism in the country and recounted a searing incident that happened to her — but she was among the 11 who would vote for him anyway.”
Healey concludes that “a lot of our focus-group participants — and many voters — see Trump as an acceptable option in November, yet they don’t know or remember a lot about him.” This makes them, of course, highly susceptible to Trump campaign messaging asserting that the economy during his presidency was the greatest ever; that he’s a natural peacemaker who inspired respect for the United States everywhere; and that he’s a decent, law-abiding businessman (and family man!) whose near-constant forced court appearances are uniformly the product of his persecution by the other party.
Democrats, of course, will have opportunities (and increasingly, an obligation) to set the record straight about Trump and his presidency. But the difficult thing is that low-information voters also tend to be low-trust voters, which means they don’t tend to believe traditional arbiters of objective reality like the mainstream news media, and may not grant more truthful politicians superior credibility. Further distorting understanding of the Trump administration (and thus its possible return) is the huge trauma associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, which gives everything that immediately preceded the disaster an undeserved glow, while immolating memories of less powerful traumas associated with the former president’s tenure.
In other words, low-information voters who dislike politics so much that they are not inclined to dig into facts and evidence touching on political topics are highly vulnerable to the kind of disinformation that benefits Donald Trump. And if they are in a bad mood in November, they could help turn the election into a negative referendum on Joe Biden even if they are inviting something — and someone — far worse. Democrats will have to work hard to break through with the truth.