Ring the town hall bell and sing a Te Deum: Tim Kaine soundly beat Jerry Kilgore in the Virginia governor’s race yesterday, and in the process showed that sometimes nice guys finish first. Sorry I’m posting a bit late this morning, but I was up until the wee hours savoring the county-by-county and city-by-city returns. And the outlines of the Kaine victory are very clear. Kilgore ran well ahead of 2001 GOP candidate Mark Early in southwest Virginia, in much of southside Virginia, and in the southern parts of the Shenandoah Valley. Yet Kaine ran ahead of Mark Warner’s winning 2001 performance just about everywhere else (the Richmond area, Hampton Roads, and Northern Virginia) and in the end, actually exceeded Warner’s statewide margin, beating Kilgore by nearly six percent. Aside from burying Jerry, Kaine’s big win buried a whole host of myths in ways that may reverberate nationally:1) The Myth of the GOP Turnout Machine: plenty of people, including a lot of Democrats, were nervous about Kaine’s small lead in the polls going into this election, on the theory that GOP superiority in the “ground game,” buttressed by its success in 2004, would lift Kilgore to victory. Didn’t happen. Turnout in heavily Republican areas was no higher than in heavily Democratic areas. And if the GOPers did indeed do a better job than Democrats in cherry-picking individual voters around the state, then there are a lot less of them than we realized.2) The Myth of Bush’s Power To Energize the Base: according to one popular theory, the Republican “conservative base,” excited about Bush’s flip-flop on the Supreme Court and his recent discovery of the idea of spending restraint, would snake-dance to the polls to congratulate him, especially after he zoomed into Richmond on the eve of the election to appear with ol’ Jerry. Again, it didn’t happen. If Bush’s presence was going to matter anywhere, it would have been in the key Richmond suburb of Chesterfied County, but as it transpires, Kilgore ran three points behind Early’s 2001 performance there. I somehow don’t think vulnerable Republican candidates in 2006 are going to line up outside the White House gates to demand Bush’s presence on the campaign trail. 3) The Myth of the Old Cultural Wedge Issues: 75% of Virginians favor capital punishment. Tim Kaine doesn’t, and hasn’t hidden it. It’s clear Virginia GOPers thought they’d be half-way to victory if they simply intoned “Death Penalty;” southern politicians simply don’t oppose it. Instead, the issue wound up hurting Kilgore more than Kaine. Now, that obviously doesn’t mean Democratic politicians should hasten to embrace unpopular positions on cultural issues, or minimize their potential impact. But it does mean a candidate can get away with an unpopular position if he or she is clear about it; bases the position on faith or other respected values; and exhibits a willingness to defer to majoritarian opinions. Kaine did all those things very effectively.4) The Myth of the New Cultural Wedge Issues: perhaps the single most important national consequence of the Kaine victory is that it may forestall a heavy emphasis by Republican candidates in 2006 and 2008 on immigrant-bashing themes. GOPers are flirting with this issue all over the South, and indeed, in every state where there are enough immigrants to be visible, but not enough to defend themselves politically. Down the stretch run, Jerry Kilgore’s campaign in Northern Virginia was all about immigration, focused relentlessly on the decision of a town in exurban Loudoun County to build a shelter for casual day laborers, most of them immigrants. But yesterday, Jerry got waxed all over Northern Virginia (where he was running even with Kaine in polls as recently as September). And most importantly, Kilgore lost Loudoun County by a 51-46 margin (Early beat Warner there 53-46) . Any Republican operative who believes this issue is an electoral silver bullet should take a long look at those results, and repent. 5) The Myth That Going Negative Always Works: this myth, beloved of campaign tacticians in both parties, took a big hit in Virginia yesterday. Recent polling (most notably in the Washington Post) showed that the tone of Kilgore’s campaign was turning off voters, even Republicans, and generating sympathy for Kaine. Yet Jerry pretty much stayed on the low road to the bitter end, providing connoisseurs of this sort of thing with an assortment of last-minute dirty tricks (fake brochures, fake “pro-Kaine” phone calls, etc.). And it’s this last factor that, for me at least, makes Kaine’s victory so very sweet. You could make a pretty good case that Jerry Kilgore would have won yesterday if he hadn’t gone negative on Kaine and introduced divisive cultural wedge issues. He had a geographical advantage, being from a region of the state that had been crucial to Mark Warner’s victory in 2001. He had a united party behind him. He was ahead in most of the polls right down to the last few weeks. With a lighter touch, he could have drawn attention to Kaine’s unpopular views on capital punishment and even exploited the immigration issue, while maintaining a positive campaign. But he and his handlers just couldn’t resist the opportunity to go medieval. Kilgore’s infamous death penalty ads achieved a sort of evil perfection in their shock value and production qualities. You can easily envision Jerry and a roomful of Young Republican rottweilers sitting around watching that first tape, and being overwhelmed by its “kill” potential.And that’s why in the end it was an election where the winner earned his victory, and the loser richly earned his defeat. God’s in His heaven, and all’s right with the world.
TDS Strategy Memos
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By Ed Kilgore
Reading through the ambiguous to vaguely positive remarks made by Republican pols about the historic auto workers strike, one of them jumped off the page, and I wrote about it at New York:
One of the great anomalies of recent political history has been the disconnect between the Republican Party’s ancient legacy as the champion of corporate America and its current electoral base, which relies heavily on support from white working-class voters. The growing contradiction was first made a major topic of debate in the 2008 manifesto Grand New Party, in which youngish conservative intellectuals Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam argued that their party offered little in the way of material inducements (or even supportive rhetoric) to its emerging electoral base. Though Douthat and Salam were by no means fans of Donald Trump, the mogul’s stunningly successful 2016 campaign did follow their basic prescription of pursuing the economic and cultural instincts of white working-class voters at the expense of doctrinaire free-market and limited-government orthodoxy.
So it’s not surprising that Trump and an assortment of other Republicans have expressed varying degrees of sympathy for the unionized autoworkers who just launched a historic industry-wide strike for better wages and working conditions. But there was a conspicuous, even anachronistic exception among nationally prominent GOP politicians: South Carolina senator and presidential candidate Tim Scott. As NBC News reported:
“It’s the latest of several critical comments Scott has made about the autoworkers, even as other GOP presidential candidates steer clear of criticizing them amid a strike at three plants so far …
“’I think Ronald Reagan gave us a great example when federal employees decided they were going to strike. He said, you strike, you’re fired. Simple concept to me. To the extent that we can use that once again, absolutely.’”
Scott’s frank embrace of old-school union bashing wouldn’t have drawn much notice 40 or 50 years ago. And to be clear, other Republicans aren’t fans of the labor movement: For the most part, MAGA Republicans appeal to the working class via a mix of cultural conservatism, economic and foreign-policy nationalism, nativism, and producerism (i.e., pitting private-sector employers and employees against the financial sector, educational elites, and those dependent on public employment or assistance). One particularly rich lode of ostensibly pro-worker rhetoric has been to treat environmental activism as inimical to the economic growth and specific job opportunities wage earners need.
So unsurprisingly, Republican politicians who want to show some sympathy for the autoworkers have mostly focused on the alleged threat of climate-change regulations generally and electric vehicles specifically to the well-being of UAW members, as Politico reported:
“’This green agenda that is using taxpayer dollars to drive our automotive economy into electric vehicles is understandably causing great anxiety among UAW members,’ [Mike Pence] said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“Other Republicans followed suit, with a National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesperson calling out Michigan Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin — Democrats’ favored candidate for the state’s open Senate seat — for her Thursday vote allowing state-level limits or bans on gas-powered cars as choosing her ‘party over Michigan.'”
More strikingly, Trump, the 2024 presidential front-runner, is planning to hold an event with Michigan workers at the very moment his GOP rivals are holding their second debate next week, notes the Washington Post:
“While other Republican candidates participate in the Sept. 27 event in California, Trump instead plans to speak to more than 500 autoworkers, plumbers, electricians and pipe-fitters, the adviser said. The group is likely to include workers from the United Auto Workers union that is striking against the Big Three automakers in the country’s Rust Belt. The Trump adviser added that it is unclear whether the former president will visit the strike line.
“Trump’s campaign also created a radio ad, to run on sports- and rock-themed stations in Detroit and Toledo, meant to present him as being on the side of striking autoworkers, the adviser said.”
There’s no evidence Trump has any understanding of, much less sympathy with, the strikers’ actual demands. But in contrast to Scott’s remarks endorsing the dismissal of striking workers, it shows that at least some Republicans are willing (rhetorically, at least) to bite the hand that feeds in the pursuit of votes.
Meanwhile, the mainstream-media types who often treat Scott as some sort of sunny, optimistic, even bipartisan breath of fresh air should pay some attention to his attitude toward workers exercising long-established labor rights he apparently would love to discard. Yes, as a self-styled champion of using taxpayer dollars to subsidize private- and homeschooling at the expense of “government schools,” Scott is constantly attacking teachers unions, just like many Republicans who draw a sharp distinction between public-sector unions (BAD!) and private-sector unions (grudgingly acceptable). But autoworkers are firmly in the private sector. Maybe it’s a South Carolina thing: Scott’s presidential rival and past political ally Nikki Haley (another media favorite with an unmerited reputation as a moderate) famously told corporate investors to stay out of her state if they intended to tolerate unions in their workplaces. For that matter, the South Carolina Republican Party was for years pretty much a wholly owned subsidiary of violently anti-union textile barons. Some old habits die hard.
One of the useful by-products of the current wave of labor activism in this country is that Republicans may be forced to extend their alleged sympathy for workers into support for policies that actually help them and don’t simply reflect cheap reactionary demagoguery aimed at foreigners, immigrants, and people of color. But Scott has flunked the most basic test threshold compatibility with the rights and interests of the working class.