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
Latest Research from:
By Ed Kilgore
Pouring over the details of the gubernatorial recall election in California, some significant patterns emerged, as I noted at New York:
The overwhelming defeat of the effort to recall California governor Gavin Newsom was a big victory for a Democratic Party that has had its troubles lately. With the margin of victory for the “no on recall” campaign roughly doubling the already-robust advantage shown in pre-election polls, the earlier scare that the recall threw into the ranks of the Golden State’s dominant party dissipated entirely. With about three-fourths of the expected vote now counted, “no” leads “yes” by a 63.8 to 36.2 margin (which could get even larger if the usual pattern of last-cast mail ballots leaning Democratic manifests itself once again).
The “no” vote was remarkably close to Joe Biden’s performance in California in 2020 (he won 63.5 percent). Given the extreme partisan polarization that underlay the recall vote (exit polls showed 89 percent of self-identified Republicans voting “yes” and 94 percent of self-identified Democrats voting “no”), that means the partisan patterns of the presidential race were reduplicated to a remarkable extent in a non-presidential special election, where Democrats often experience a “falloff,” particularly when they control the White House (and in this case, the governorship). That’s great news for California Democrats, and not a bad sign for Democrats nationally, who are bracing for the midterm losses the “White House Party” typically suffers.But in assessing the implications of the results, it’s important to look back at what happened down ballot in California in 2020, while looking ahead to the most critical 2022 battleground, the fight for control of the House. Of the 13 net House seats Republicans gained in 2020, four were in deep-blue California. There is no likely path for Democrats to hang onto House control in 2022 without flipping some or all of those lost seats in one of their strongest states.
Precisely because of the reduplication of the 2020 patterns, there’s really nothing about the recall returns that suggests Democrats are sure to claw back some House seats in California. Two of the four seats Republicans flipped in 2020 (with Asian-American women Young Kim and Michelle Steele as candidates) were centered in Orange County. While “no” won in Orange, the recall race there was closer than the Biden-Trump contest of 2020. A third battleground seat was the one Republican David Valadao won in a very competitive section of the San Joaquin Valley. The recall improved on Trump’s 2020 performance in every county in his district (e.g., Trump won 55 percent in Kings County, but “yes” on recalling Newsom won 63 percent). These results could reflect an intensifying alienation of this heavily agricultural area from Sacramento’s environmental and water-supply policies. Or it could reflect a drop-off in Latino turnout that could spell disaster for Democrats in close 2022 races. Either way the recall numbers should give pause to Democratic optimism about midterm House races.
One study of 2020 returns in California showed Latino turnout trailing non-Latino turnout by about 10 percent. One mail-ballot tracker for the recall showed the turnout gap between Latinos and non-Latino white voters swelling to 20 percent. Youth turnout for the recall was also terrible, exit polls suggest. Yes, these are constituencies that are difficult to mobilize in special elections. But that’s also true of midterm elections, which is a problem Democrats in California and elsewhere need to solve.
The bottom line is that Newsom won the Democratic and Democratic-leaning elements of the California electorate by strongly encouraging partisan polarization via his lavishly funded campaign. This was the obvious smart strategy in this heavily Democratic state. It’s less clear the same strategy will work wonders downballot for Democrats in 2022, which they probably will not have a big financial advantage and shifts in public opinion away from the presidential winner may have settled in, as they did for the last three presidents. Even if Democrats hang onto their monopoly of statewide offices and their super-majorities in the state legislature, any failure to make progress in House races could contribute to the much-dreaded moment when Californian Nancy Pelosi hands over her gavel to Californian Kevin McCarthy, and the Democratic trifecta that gives Biden a chance to implement his agenda comes to an end.