The Hunt for Scapegoats Begins

Starting with a seven- to 10-point lead in the polls back in the summer, the race for governor in Republican-leaning Virginia was Jerry Kilgore’s to lose. But lose it he did. Tim Kaine won by a 5.7 percent margin, representing a cumulative swing of 12 to 15 points over the campaign. The question is why. Here are some morning-after thoughts.

  • Kilgore expended his resources attacking Kaine on “cultural” issues — the death penalty, immigration, gun control, etc., but opinion polls showed clearly that the electorate was more focused on pragmatic issues such as education, government spending, taxes and transportation. Gov. Mark Warner had consistently steered clear of the culture wars, sticking to good-government themes and achieving extraordinary levels of popularity as a result. Kaine campaigned as Mark Warner Jr., assuring voters that he would give them four more years of the same. Kilgore’s strategists ignored the obvious and Kilgore paid the price.
  • Kilgore never forced Kaine to defend the $1.4 billion tax increase that he and Warner backed in 2004. That’s probably because opinion polls showed that the Virginia public largely approved of that tax increase. But that public approval, I maintain, was skin deep: the result of fawning press coverage and division among Republicans at the time. Since 2004, massive budget surpluses have demonstrated clearly that the tax cut was never needed. But other than going on the record as having opposed the tax increase, Kilgore never made the budget an issue. In effect, he gave the “Warner/Kaine administration” a free pass on its claims to have done such a magnificent job of managing the state budget.
  • In contrast to Kaine’s discipline about staying on message as the pragmatic, can-do successor to Mark Warner — Kilgore never established a dominant theme. He tried a lot of things: the death penalty, immigration, etc., but none of them gained traction, so he jumped on to the next. He never convinced the electorate that he bad a better blueprint for governing.
  • Labeling Kaine as “liberal” did not work. If Virginians thought that Kaine was liberal in the mold of a New York or California Democrat, he would have been unelectable. But simply calling someone a liberal does not make him so. Kaine effectively countered Kilgore’s charges by emphasizing his religious faith and tying himself to Warner. He maintained a tone of moderation and pragmatism throughout the campaign. The “liberal” label just didn’t stick. In fact, it boomeranged. A lot of Virginians were turned off by the consistently negative tone of Kilgore’s ads.
  • While denouncing Kaine as a liberal, Kilgore failed to energize his conservative base — especially the low-tax, small government wing of the party. Although he trotted out some ideas for tax cuts, he simultaneously served up lots of ideas for spending more money. He never convinced the small-government conservatives that he was serious about controlling the size of government.
  • Kilgore never projected an image of leadership. His unwillingness to debate his opponents, and his less-than-stellar performance in the debates he did conduct, did not create the persona of someone in command.

Jerry Kilgore is a decent, honorable and personally likeable man. He wasn’t a bad candidate — he just wasn’t good enough to overcome the mistakes he made. The Virginia electorate made it very clear that it prefers the politics of substance over the politics of cultural symbolism. If Republicans want to hold onto their majority status in the legislature, they need to think more creatively about how to apply their ideals to the issues that matter to the voters.

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16 responses to “The Hunt for Scapegoats Begins”

  1. subpatre Avatar

    …Kilgore failed to energize his conservative base
    Republicans may have a conservative base, but Kilgore didn’t.

    You’re right the tax increase failed to become an issue, I suspect because too many of the Republican leadership liked it.

    Both DNC & RNC invested a lot in Virginia this year, probably a reason for the stinkiest, least inspiring executive race in recent memory. The races went to candidates who lost the least; there were no winners.

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    1) The negative ads killed him.

    2) Mark Warner killed him.

    3) The President didn’t help – what a stupid move along with the mailer featuring Kilgore and the President.

    The conservatives have no choice but to nominate more centrist candidates otherwise the result will be the same. Bill Bolling or Bob McDonnell in 2009? Give me a break.

  3. NoVA Scout Avatar
    NoVA Scout

    I posit (although it may be wishful thinking) that Virginians are at least sophisticated enough to be looking for a minimally competent quality of governance (some may have higher standards than ‘minimal’, but I’ll keep the benchmark low for purposes of discussion). The Republican Party in Virginia has allowed itself to become enthralled with positions that are long on emotion and short on the mechanics of how you run something as complex as a state or local government. In a Republican primary context, a candidate can survive on slogans, but in the general election there has to be something more. The party’s two candidates who had successfully run local governments, Fitch and Connaughton, were cast off by the primary electorate. Their skills, experiences and abilities (both these guys had lives outside of politics also) would have gone a long way in the General Election. Several Republican HD candidates of the buzzword set got chucked also (I’m particularly thinking of Black and Craddock). Bolling’s win was far closer than it had any right to be, given the weakness of the opposing candidate. No comfort can be taken there.

    What I hope for is that next time around, we see diligent, competent “good governance” candidates with proven records of administrative leadership. A little geographic diversity wouldn’t hurt either. This ticket was essentially an “Inside Richmond” crowd. If we find candidates who have strong records of taking care of transportation, education and fiscal issues, who have proven capability in fields of endeavor other than state politics and who will chuck out the consultants who keep turning on the hydrants of negative campaigning, conservative Republicans may have a future role in this state. If we don’t seriously look for and encourage these people, we have no business governing in any event. negative

  4. Anonymous Avatar

    Fitch was not “cast off”. He was never a viable candidate. If he had started 2 years earlier building a grass-roots campaign, and had taken state-wide responsibilities in the previous elections, there were a lot of republicans who would have voted for him.

    But he didn’t, he entered late, and never had a campaign. I wish Fitch had done what he needed to do, he had a lot to offer.

    As for Sean/Bill, Bolling won his election, right now by 70,000 more votes than Kilgore got. In other words, republicans showed up to vote, and they VOTED for Bill Bolling’s conservative candidacy, but then turned around and voted AGAINST Kilgore. I find it hard to imagine that if Sean had run, his voters would have done any differently.

    The point is that we got enough republicans to the polls to win the race, as can be seen by the totals in the down-ticket races.

    Against a liberal (byrne), and a conservative (deeds) democrat, our consistant conservative candidates seem to have won, and got a lot more votes than Kilgore.

    Let’s face it. Kilgore was “chosen” as our candidate 4 years ago when he won the AG spot. Maybe that is something we have to think about — 4 years is a long time to ignore rising stars or better candidates.

    Bush didn’t lose this for Kilgore. Kilgore lost this race, and he did it visibly and in the stupidest of ways. The list is long:
    1) Hitler.
    2) Attacking Lawyers for who they defend
    3) Refusing to answer an abortion question.
    4) Refusing to fill out a VCDL form, and calling them names.
    5) Supporting local unelected boards calling for referendum on tax increases.
    6) Refusing to discuss the 2 billion dollar surplus, or to defend using that surplus to either cut some taxes, or at least fund one-time needs rather than new programs.

    It wasn’t a factor, but the flap over the “misleading” fliers was simply a perfect example of how bad a candidate Kilgore was (or how bad his campaign was run). Getting your opponent fined for violations 3 days before the election is a good move — but committing the same violation at the SAME time so you get fined a day later is stupid.

    If I were to judge the candidate by the campaign, I would have to commit sacrilege, and say that Warner would be a better governor than Kilgore. I don’t believe that — but if the campaign could convince ME of it, is there any wonder Kilgore lost?

    Number one on my list of wishes for 2009 is a candidate for which I never have to mutter the words “What the heck was THAT?”

  5. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    I am in CA on business for 2 weeks, so I feel like a junkie looking for a fix – searching for more and more details on the election. I’d like to know the inside baseball details on Craddock and Black.

    As I was reading down this blog, like reading an old scroll, I wondered who wrote it (which is why the Bible scrolls begin and end with intro) – because I was agreeing strongly. Surprise, surprise (hear Gomer Pyle’s voice) – it was Mr. Bacon.

    Good analysis.

    I thought the wedge issues would pull Jerry through by a hair. Wow, was I wrong. The wedges hit both sides and these definitely did.

    The comments above about moderates and governance are off the mark. Nominating Democrats-lite, like our present 17 RINOs in the HD, serves to depress the Conservative base. Likewise, narrowly constructed social conservatives without a vision for governance lose. A combination of social conservative and sound public policy ideas wins.

    The Bolling and McDonnell wins indicate the discretion of the electorate. Given a number of factors, I’m not sure that Bolling’s win is that weak. In fact, I think it is significant.

    Once again, I agree with Bacon’s analysis. Best from the Left Coast.

  6. Salt Lick Avatar

    I’m not sure what’s worse — Kilgore’s loss or the possibility JAB sounds like Gomer Pyle.

  7. Anonymous Avatar

    J.A.B., Jim B., and Subpatre all have it right-on!

  8. Anonymous Avatar

    I’ll cast another vote against the need for “good governance” conservatives. At least, if by “good governance” you mean “business as usual.” We need someone who can take a truly fiscal conservative approach to government. We need a conservative Republican version of Doug Wilder.

  9. fmr-va-hack Avatar

    Jerry Kilgore represented a good second-tier back-bencher who was put at the front of the line. This, of course, is a pardonable sin and does not mean he was unelectable, but without a strong personality or decisive agenda to point to, his lack of leadership skills left him without the tools to make a case for change after a popular Democratic Administration.

    There are lessons in the past four gubernatorial elections in VA. When George Allen ran in 1993, Allen was well defined as a candidate and possessed an identifiable agenda he was presenting to voters. When voters went to the polls in ’97, they knew they were voting to have their car tax cut. In ’01 a muddled message from Earley and an argument for bi-partisan, good government from Warner were the choices for Virginians. This year, Kilgore was more defined for what he said Kaine would do or not do with his powers as chief executioner than for any specific policy initiatives he was promoting while Kaine offered himself as a continuation of the Warner administration.

    The lesson from these races: Voters react to candidates who point to what they will do–specific policy initiatives they promise to do and to strong personalities who command leadership. Both of those qualities were missing from Kilgore this year (although Im not making the argument that Kaine offered a treasure trove of those qualities either–just more than his opponent).

    Republicans will serve themselves well by taking the time to redefine themselves as more than just the anti-gay, anti-abortion party. When they gave the Democrats their tax increases, they gave up their ability to call themselves the party of lower taxes. They should find the leaders in their party who are willing to fill the leadship vaccuum that exists under the Howell-Stosch-Griffith-Obenshain-Allen era.

  10. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    Former VA Hack: From a current appartchik (sp) perspective, I’d add that there is more than one Republican Party. The RPV is the front office of the head beagles in elected office – George Allen and Jerry Kilgore (formerly). That will shift now to Bill and Bob – and it will be interesting to see. The other Party are the unit committees and district committees of their chairs. They are the patronized and impotent (within the Party) grassroots with a few key legal responsibilities to make nominations.

    Very insightful comments. I would add, also, the election proves again that the Virginia voters are not as stoooopid as the politicians think they are. Our GOP should try to remember that from one election to the next.

  11. Anonymous Avatar

    According to the State Board of Elections website, Bolling won by 23,000 votes. That means, if less than 12,000 people across the State switched their votes, the underfunded campaign of a very liberal and abrasive candidate would have been successful. Or, if the 45,000 people who voted in the Governors race but not in the LG race voted in the latter race, the results could have been different. Any other Democrat other than Byrne would have won yesterday. I cannot believe that this marginal victory against a very weak opponent is being spun as some sort of mandate.

  12. Anonymous Avatar

    “Given a number of factors, I’m not sure that Bolling’s win is that weak. In fact, I think it is significant.”

    I disagree. The vast majority of voters that voted for Bolling and McDonnell knew very little about them. They voted for Kaine because they liked him and couldn’t stand Kilgore. They voted for Bolling and McDonnell because of the letter next to their name, not because they knew that they were especially conservative.

    And that’s just the explanation for why they got more votes than Kilgore. The real question is why their races were eevn close at all. That’s a monumental failure on both counts no matter how you slice it.

  13. Anonymous Avatar

    From today’s RTD:

    “It’s a surprise that Leslie Byrne was competitive in Virginia to begin with,” said Mark Rozell, a political analyst at George Mason University. “A more centrist candidate easily would have won. But voters differentiated between her and the top of the ticket.”

  14. fmr Va Hack?

    You mean a Jaycee hack? Then I imagine you have some political wisdom to offer…

  15. too conservative Avatar
    too conservative

    The inside Craddock details werent as juicy as the media tried to make them.

    The district went for Kaine, so Chris natually lost.

    He did not have Davis to back him up as Albo did.

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