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
Waiting for Joe Biden’s speech to a joint session of Congress to begin this week, I observed at New York that Republicans were struggling to define him consistently, which felt like a familiar problem for them:
When Bill Clinton was at the pre-Lewinsky peak of his powers, he drove Republicans nuts. They alternated between accusing him of “stealing our issues” with his triangulating pitches on welfare reform and crime and the size of government, and of being “liberal, liberal, liberal!” — a sort of boomer love child of George McGovern and Janis Joplin in a deceptive deep-fried southern packaging. Eventually the opportunity to depict him as a lying sexual predator solved the conservative dilemma, though you could argue he never stopped throwing them off-balance.
Republicans are similarly having problems getting a clear focus on Joe Biden, as the Los Angeles Times’ Noah Bierman observes:
“Alex Conant, a Republican consultant who has advised Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, [says] that his party’s two main messages about Biden are at odds with each other, blunting their impact. ‘The thing you hear Republicans say most is that he’s too old for the job, which isn’t consistent with saying he’s doing too much,’ Conant said. ‘You can’t effectively argue that he’s incompetent and that he’s too effective.'”
This dual framing of Biden was evident during the 2020 campaign, when Trump called him “Sleepy Joe” and with his usual lack of subtlety suggested his opponent was senile, even as he assailed Biden’s party of radical socialist aims. The 45th president and his surrogates squared the circle by treating Biden as the half-there puppet of the real powers, particularly the “communist” Kamala Harris.
But now, 100 days into the Biden-Harris administration, even though the new president has kept an unusually low profile, there are no signs of Harris or anyone else manipulating him. Indeed, so far his White House has been remarkably free of the factionalism that often undermines clear presidential leadership. With Clinton as president you had a White House staff famously divided (ironically, given the later reputations of the First Lady and the veep) into progressive “Rodhams” and centrist “Gores” who jockeyed for position and placed their varying stamps on administration policies. George W. Bush’s presidency was also marked by competing power centers (e.g., his terrifying vice-president and the “Boy Genius” Karl Rove); to a lesser extent, so was Obama’s. As for Donald Trump, hardly a week passed without someone — particularly his rotating cast of chiefs-of-staff — being described by “insiders” as the real power behind the throne or perhaps as the wild man’s lion-tamer.
Trump, of course, created some of the same problems for Democrats that Clinton — and now Biden — posed for Republicans. Was he the “toddler president” who ran a hollowed-out administration with no real core of convictions or goals? Or was he a putative Il Duce craftily planning an authoritarian takeover of the country? Up until the day he left office there was evidence for both descriptions. Indeed, the coda of his presidency, the January 6 Capitol riot, was variously regarded as a fascist coup attempt and a clown show.
Trump’s successor will have an opportunity in his first address to a joint session of Congress to add to the impression that he is quietly but firmly in charge of the executive branch, and has imposed order on his fractious party as he unveils yet another massive proposal. Kamala Harris will be sitting (and often standing and applauding) behind him, likely looking more like an adoring protégée than any sort of puppet-master. But if he stumbles at all, or looks tired, or says things that supposedly centrist Democrats like him don’t believe, the knees of many elephants will jerk and out will come the mockery of the old man who is a reassuring front for the Marxists actually running the country.
Such confusion if it continues will be of great service to Biden, much like the current Republican tendency to focus on irrelevant culture-war themes while a mostly united Democratic Party enacts legislative initiatives of a magnitude we haven’t seen since Ronald Reagan’s first year in office. For all their political gifts, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — who, lest we forget, both had a much more firmly Democratic Senate and House the first two years of their presidencies — couldn’t come close to the mastery of Congress Biden has exhibited up until now. As Republicans watch Biden’s speech, they should soberly realize that before long it may not matter that much if they bust up the Democratic trifecta in 2022. The damage to GOP policies and priorities wrought by “Uncle Joe” and his “senile socialist regime” could be too large to reverse by then. While Republicans fret about Trump and rage about “cancel culture,” Biden is eating their lunch.