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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Back to the ’80s in Virginia

A Republican gubernatorial candidate in a close race launches a vicious attack on his opponent as a weak-kneed liberal who coddles illegal immigrants and criminals and opposes the death penalty. Where are we? California, circa 1986? Nope, it’s the Commonweath of Virginia in 2005, where Jerry (No Relation) Kilgore is bringing back the cultural wedge issues of a bygone era with a vengeance.The rationale for this atavistic effort is a bit tangled. Kilgore’s big problem is that incumbent Democratic Governor Mark Warner is very, very popular. Democratic candidate and Lieutenant Governor Tim Kaine is his designated successor. Having spent four years fighting everything Warner has tried to do, ol’ Jerry cannot exactly claim he’ll build on the Warner legacy. To be sure, Kilgore is more than willing to make spending promises, especially on the critical transportation needs of Northern Virginia, based on using the tax revenues he fought to deny the Commonweath. And he’s trying to coopt the Warner magic in more subtle ways as well. Down in central Virginia, the landscape is covered with big “Sportsmen for Kilgore” signs that are carbon copies of the “Sportsmen for Warner” signs of 2001.But nobody really believes Jerry is a sensible centrist like Warner, so his only option is to claim that Kaine isn’t either.As the Washington Post‘s Robert Barnes noted yesterday:

Kaine has based his campaign on the promise that he is the logical choice to “keep Virginia moving forward” since Warner is barred from seeking reelection. But the Kilgore campaign believes it can break open what both sides describe as an extremely close race by portraying the lieutenant governor as a chameleon who doesn’t share Warner’s middle-of-the-road persona.

The strategy is “separating Kaine from Warner and further making the case he’s not Mark Warner part two,” said a Republican strategist familiar with the campaign who would discuss campaign tactics only on condition of anonymity. “It is probably one of the most crucial elements for success.”

Hence the barrage on old-style cultural issues where Kilgore can claim Kaine diverges from Warner.Kilgore has constantly sought to exploit a local dispute in the Washington exurbs over a day laborer gathering point (which Kaine, accurately, calls an issue not within the state’s power to control) to luridly suggest the Old Dominion is about to be overrun by illegal immigrants and Hispanic gangs, even claiming they are connected to al Qaeda.But ol’ Jerry’s demagogic Big Bertha, which he appears to have kept in reserve for the home stretch, is reflected in the wave of ads he’s running about Kaine’s opposition to the death penalty, which feature relatives of murder victims (include one whose killer Kaine defended as a court-appointed attorney) excoriating the Lieutenant Governor.Kaine has put up an ad offering a dignified response, speaking personally about the basis for his opposition to the death penalty in his Catholicism; making it clear he will enforce the current law if elected; and rather frankly denying there’s any particular connection between executions and violent crime rates, which are, in any event, near historic lows.It’s too early to tell whether Kilgore’s gambit will succeed. If he wins after this low-road effort, the implications will extend well beyond the misgovernment Virginians will be virtually guaranteed for the next four years (not to mention the personal pain I will experience in having my surname tainted).”Off-year” elections are almost invariably over-interpreted by political analysts, and over-imitated by political pros. I can’t imagine anything that would poison this country’s already toxic political climate more than a decision by Republican operatives to supplement the Karl Rove generation of cultural wedge issues with those of the late Lee Atwater.If Jerry loses, on the other hand, maybe this kind of crap can be put in a political Superfund site, roped off with skull-and-cross-bones signs, and buried for a very long time.

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