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
May 26: DeSantis Stumbles Out of the Gate
Like everyone else, I listened to DeSantis’s botched Twitter Spaces launch, but then reached some conclusions about the trajectory of his campaign at New York:
Before long, the laughter over the technical glitches that marred Ron DeSantis’s official presidential campaign launch with Elon Musk on Twitter Spaces will fade. We’ll all probably look back and place this moment in better perspective. Political-media folk (not to mention DeSantis’s Republican rivals and Democratic enemies) tend to overreact to “game changing” moments in campaigns when fundamentals and long-term trends matter infinitely more. Relatively few actual voters were tuned in to Twitter to watch the botched launch, and even fewer will think less of DeSantis as a potential president because of this incident.
It mattered in one respect, however: The screwed-up launch stepped all over a DeSantis campaign reset designed to depict the Florida governor as a political Death Star with unlimited funds and an unbeatable strategy for winning the GOP nomination. The reset was important to rebut the prevailing story line that DeSantis had lost an extraordinary amount of ground since the salad days following his landslide reelection last year, when he briefly looked to be consolidating partywide support as a more electable and less erratic replacement for Donald Trump. For reasons both within and beyond his control, he missed two critical strategic objectives going into the 2024 race: keeping the presidential field small enough to give him a one-on-one shot at Trump and keeping Trump from reestablishing himself as the front-runner with an air of inevitability about a third straight nomination.
To dissipate growing concerns about the DeSantis candidacy, the top chieftains of his Never Back Down super-PAC let it be known earlier this week that they had a plan that would shock and awe the political world, based on their extraordinary financial resources (fed by an $80 million surplus DeSantis transferred from his Florida reelection campaign account). The New York Times wrote up the scheme without questioning its connection to reality:
“A key political group supporting Ron DeSantis’s presidential run is preparing a $100 million voter-outreach push so big it plans to knock on the door of every possible DeSantis voter at least four times in New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — and five times in the kickoff Iowa caucuses.
“The effort is part of an on-the-ground organizing operation that intends to hire more than 2,600 field organizers by Labor Day, an extraordinary number of people for even the best-funded campaigns….
“The group said it expected to have an overall budget of at least $200 million.”
In case the numbers didn’t properly document the audacity of this plan, Team DeSantis made it explicit. The Times report continues:
“‘No one has ever contemplated the scale of this organization or operation, let alone done it,’ said Chris Jankowski, the group’s chief executive. ‘This has just never even been dreamed up.’” …
At the helm of the DeSantis super PAC is Jeff Roe, a veteran Republican strategist who was Mr. [Ted] Cruz’s campaign manager in 2016. In an interview, Mr. Roe described an ambitious political apparatus whose 2,600 field organizers by the fall would be roughly double the peak of Senator Bernie Sanders’s entire 2020 primary campaign staff.
Clearly opening up the thesaurus to find metaphors for the extraordinary power and glory of their plans, one DeSantis operative told the Dispatch they were “light speed and light years ahead of any campaign out there, including Trump’s.”
Now more than ever, DeSantis’s campaign will have to prove its grand plans aren’t just fantasies. Those doors in Iowa really will have to be knocked. Thanks to Trump’s current lead, DeSantis will absolutely have to beat expectations there and do just as well in New Hampshire and South Carolina before facing an existential challenge in his and Trump’s home state of Florida. And while DeSantis had a good weekend in Iowa recently, picking up a lot of state legislative endorsements even as Trump canceled a rally due to bad weather that never arrived, he’s got a ways to go. A new Emerson poll of the first-in-the-nation-caucuses state shows Trump leading by an astonishing margin of 62 percent to 20 percent. And obviously enough, Iowa is where DeSantis will likely face the largest number of rivals aside from Trump; he’s a sudden surge from Tim Scott or Mike Pence or Nikki Haley or even Vivek Ramaswamy away from a real Iowa crisis.
Door knocking aside, a focus on Iowa, with its base-dominated caucus system and its large and powerful conservative Evangelical population, will likely force DeSantis to run to Trump’s right even more than he already has. The newly official candidate did not mention abortion policy during his launch event on Twitter; that will have to change, since he has a crucial opportunity to tell Iowa Evangelicals about the six-week ban he recently signed (similar, in fact, to the law Iowa governor Kim Reynolds enacted), in contrast to Trump’s scolding of the anti-abortion movement for extremism. DeSantis also failed once again to talk about his own religious faith, whatever it is; that will probably have to change in Iowa too. He did, however, talk a lot during the launch about his battle against the COVID-19 restrictions the federal government sought to impose on Florida even during the Trump administration. That will very likely continue.
The glitchy launch basically cost DeSantis whatever room for maneuvering he might have enjoyed as the 2024 competition begins to get very real — less than eight months before Iowa Republicans caucus (the exact date remains TBD). He’d better get used to spending a lot of time in Iowa’s churches and Pizza Ranches, and he also needs to begin winning more of the exchanges of potshots with Trump, which will only accelerate from here on out. All the money he has and all the hype and spin his campaign puts out won’t win the nomination now that Trump is fully engaged, and it sure doesn’t look like the 45th president’s legal problems will represent anything other than rocket fuel for his jaunt through the primaries. So for DeSantis, it’s time to put up or shut up.