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
It’s one of the more comical aspects of the deadly serious game of chicken that House Republicans are playing on the debt limit, but it’s worth pointing out, as I did at New York:
As the United States lurches toward a possible debt default thanks to House Republican hostage-taking on legislation needed to extend or suspend the debt limit, it’s increasingly evident that (as my colleague Jonathan Chait observed) the hostage-taker is strangely reluctant to name a ransom. Indeed, the initial Democratic strategy in this complicated chess game was simply to force House Republicans to say exactly what kind of spending cuts they propose to make in exchange for allowing a debt-limit measure to wobble its way to Joe Biden’s desk.
It’s easy to mock GOP lawmakers for the brainlessness, or maybe cowardice, of their effort to make Democrats identify the spending cuts their opponents want. The Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell tans the elephant’s hide with considerable panache:
“Republicans have Very Serious budget demands. Unfortunately, they can’t identify what any of those demands are.
“They say they want to reduce deficits — but meanwhile have ruled out virtually every path for doing so (cuts to defense, cuts to entitlements, wiping out nondefense discretionary spending, or raising taxes). …
“Republicans say they want lower deficits — in fact, they have pledged to balance the budget (that is, no deficit at all) within seven or 10 years. But they have not laid out any plausible mathematical path for arriving at that destination. They promise to cut ‘wasteful spending’ … but can’t agree on what counts as ‘waste.’”
In so quickly reaching this predictable dead end in answering the world’s easiest math problem, Republicans have one plausible line of defense: It’s how much of the public feels about fiscal matters as well. They really don’t like deficits and (especially) debt. But they really don’t like the kind of spending cuts that Republicans are talking about either (tax increases, of course, are categorically off the table for the GOP and have been since the George H.W. Bush “Read my lips: No new taxes” debacle).
A September 2022 poll from the deficit scolds of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation found that Americans are up in arms about all the borrowing:
“A 31-month high of 83% of voters are urging the president and Congress to spend more time addressing the national debt, with the biggest jump among those under age 35 (8 points to 85%).
“More than eight-in-ten voters (81%) also said that their concern about the national debt has increased. Nearly three-in-four voters (74%) feel the national debt should be a top-three priority for the president and Congress, including 65% of Democrats, 74% of independents, and 86% of Republicans.”
From 40,000 feet, all that red ink looks pretty alarming, it seems. More recently, this very week, the Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal found a majority of Americans stamping their feet about it:
“Most Americans oppose raising the federal debt ceiling without accompanying cuts to federal spending, a new RMG Research poll finds.
“Sixty-one percent of 1,000 registered voters in the survey said Congress should either raise the debt ceiling with spending cuts (45%) or refuse to raise the ceiling at all (16%). Only about a quarter (24%) said Congress should raise the ceiling without accompanying spending cuts.”
To House Republicans, the great symbol of runaway spending is the “monstrous” $1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill passed by Congress in December. Many of them claimed during the fight over Kevin McCarthy’s Speakership bid that “the American people” were outraged by the measure despite the fact that it cleared the Senate, House, and White House. Perhaps they were thinking of a Twitter poll conducted by Elon Musk that showed that 75 percent of respondents opposed the omnibus bill.
The sad truth is, however, that the more specific you are in identifying items in one of those “monstrous” bills, the more support they command from the public. In 2021, Gallup published a summary of public-opinion research on what was then a $3.5 trillion Build Back Better Democratic budget-reconciliation proposal (soon whittled way down to $2.2 trillion and then to a net-negative figure in the ultimately enacted Inflation Reduction Act) and found that its provisions were very popular despite the debt they required:
“[S]everal recent polls … ask about the bill in a broad, umbrella fashion, and all find majority support. A Quinnipiac poll conducted July 27-Aug. 2 asked, ‘Do you support or oppose a $3.5 trillion spending bill on social programs such as child care, education, family tax breaks and expanding Medicare for seniors?’ and found 62% support, 32% opposition. A Monmouth University poll conducted July 21-26 asked about both the initial infrastructure bill and the new $3.5 trillion bill, describing the latter this way: ‘A plan to expand access to healthcare and child care, and provide paid leave and college tuition support.’ The results were similar to the Quinnipiac poll, with 63% in favor and 35% opposed …
“A progressive think tank, Data for Progress, conducted an online poll among likely voters July 30-Aug. 2, with a much more detailed 130-word description of the bill, including in the question wording a bulleted list of six specific proposals in the plan, the $3.5 trillion price tag and even a description of the ‘reconciliation’ procedure necessary to pass it. All of this (and the online mode, and the sample of likely voters as opposed to national adults) also didn’t seem to make much difference; 66% of likely voters in their sample supported the plan as described, while 26% opposed it — similar to the Quinnipiac and Monmouth results.”
So the minute you get into the particulars of Democratic-proposed spending bills, public concerns about debts and deficits tend to fade. And oh — there’s another problem for Republicans on the fiscal front: voters like the idea of higher taxes on the wealthy and on corporations to pay for popular spending measures.
The lesson for Republicans is clear: Their crusade for fiscal discipline is popular, so long as it is very general and you exclude higher taxes on the rich as a possible solution. No wonder politicians like McCarthy want Democrats to be the ones who name the GOP’s price for letting the U.S. economy get through the year without calamity.