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
Amidst all the Republican attacks on voting by mail, something else was going on, which I wrote about at New York:
Republican state legislatures across the country recently launched efforts to restricting voting by mail in myriad ways. It’s generally understood that they are reacting to Donald Trump’s bizarre but incessant claims that massive fraud associated with expanded mail ballots in 2020 robbed him of a “landslide” victory. That’s not, however, the only voter-suppression measures the GOP is pursuing in states where they control both the executive and legislative branches of government. They are also returning to their pre-2020 agenda of restricting in-person voting in ways that disproportionately affect Democratic-leaning constituencies.
That’s most evident in Georgia, where GOP legislators are considering crackdowns on early in-person voting, restricting weekend voting opportunities, banning mobile polling places, and invalidating provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct. But it’s popped up also in Iowa, where Republicans have sent their GOP governor a bill cutting back on early voting and even closing the polls earlier on Election Day (Democrats traditionally vote later in the day than Republicans).In both states, of course, these attacks on in-person voting are being combined with restrictions on voting by mail; one of the bills in Georgia would eliminate no-excuse absentee ballots — in effect since Republicans introduced it in 2005 — altogether. But there’s clearly a bait and switch going on, in which general-purpose attacks on the franchise, and particularly voting practices thought to benefit Democrats, are being hustled through even though they have nothing to do with the widespread Trumpian claims that liberalized voting by mail is a threat to election integrity.
This reality creates a bit of a strategic problem for Democrats. Should they expend their energy defending expanded (or even universal) voting-by-mail opportunities to the last ditch just because Trump chose to demonize the practice in one election cycle? In the past, after all, voting by mail was actually thought to favor Republicans in many states. Emory political scientist Alan Abramowitz has just published an analysis concluding that expanded voting by mail didn’t have much to do with Joe Biden’s victory, even in the pandemic-distorted atmosphere of 2020.
Certainly in many parts of the country — including Georgia — early in-person voting has been the favorite balloting method for Democratic-leaning minority voters. It was no accident that an early version of one of the Georgia bills banned in-person voting on Sundays altogether, which was a direct attack on “Souls to the Polls” — post-worship-service voter-mobilization drives undertaken by many Black churches (the provision was struck, as it sounds both racist and anti-religious, though it was replaced with restrictions on how many weekend days were available for early in-person voting).
We’ll never know why Trump spent so much time attacking voting by mail in 2020, absent any clear evidence it would benefit his opponent. My own guess is that all along he contemplated the “red mirage” strategy of claiming victory based on early returns and either stopping or delegitimizing mail ballots counted later — a strategy that depended on convincing his own supporters to vote in person, which they obediently did, relatively speaking. That he failed to competently pull it off is no evidence that this was not the plan. But in any event, absent an extended or future pandemic, unrestricted or positively encouraged voting by mail may not be as fundamentally essential to voting rights as it appeared to be when Trump and his allies were assailing it every day. At a minimum, voting-rights advocates should be vigilant about a return to systemic voter suppression aimed at other — or all — methods of balloting.