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Red-State Seats Tricky Fruit to Pluck

Democrats may find that social issues hamper their ability to convert public dissatisfaction with the president into midterm election wins.

October 30, 2005|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

STAUNTON, Va. — In the Republican-leaning state of Virginia, the political climate has rarely been as favorable for Democrats as it is in this year's gubernatorial election.

Outgoing Democratic Gov. Mark R. Warner is leaving office with a stratospheric 75% approval rating after an energetic term in which he closed a state budget shortfall, invested in schools and roads and presided over booming job growth.

Even some Republicans consider Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, the Democratic candidate to succeed Warner, a smoother and more skilled campaigner than GOP nominee Jerry W. Kilgore, the former state attorney general.

And, although President Bush comfortably carried Virginia last year, polls show his approval rating has slipped below 50% in the state.

Despite all of these tailwinds, Kaine is running at best stride for stride with Kilgore -- and perhaps a step behind him -- as they near the Nov. 8 election.

To a large extent, Kilgore has neutralized Kaine's advantages by relentlessly portraying the Democrat as a liberal out of touch with state residents on social issues, especially the death penalty. In effect, Kilgore's camp has pushed voters to see the race less as a referendum on current conditions than as an opportunity to express their values on cultural issues that the candidates could have debated as easily in 1995 or 1985.

In that way, the contest has crystallized the challenge Democrats probably will face next year trying to convert the disenchantment with Bush and the country's direction evident in national polls into significant gains in congressional elections.

To regain control of Congress, Democrats would need to win Senate and House seats in Republican-leaning red states -- such as Montana, Missouri and Ohio -- and congressional districts that traditionally have been the most receptive to the same cultural issues Kilgore has spotlighted.

If Kilgore can retake the Virginia governorship for the GOP, it would prove "that red states [next year] are going to be tougher nuts to crack for Democrats, even under good circumstances, than they currently think," said Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

Virginia is one of two states picking governors next month. The other is New Jersey, where Democratic Sen. Jon Corzine has a lead of seven to nine percentage points over Republican Douglas Forrester in recent surveys. Some earlier polls showed the race closer amid concerns about scandals in state government.

As oracles for the midterm elections a year later, the two states have a mixed record. Republican gubernatorial victories in Virginia and New Jersey in 1993 did foreshadow the sweeping GOP gains of 1994, but Democrats unexpectedly gained congressional seats in 1998 after Republicans held the governor's office in both states again in 1997. And Democrats lost House and Senate seats in 2002 after winning the governorships in both states in 2001.

Still, in its arguments and strategies, the Virginia race may be anticipating currents that influence next year's campaigns.

In one key respect, the Virginia governor's race reverses the positions the parties almost assuredly will occupy in 2006. Though most Democrats next year can be expected to fan dissatisfaction over the country's direction, Kaine is centering his campaign on widespread contentment about the performance of Warner, who state law limits to one term.

Successfully occupying the center on most issues, Warner won support from many Republican legislators for a large tax increase to pay for education and transportation after first squeezing out significant spending reductions to close a budget deficit he inherited. Warner is now exploring a bid for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.

Kaine, in his campaigning, emphasizes the traditional Democratic priority of education, promising to fund universal access to preschool for 4-year-olds. But Kaine has spiced his message with two distinctive notes.

Most surprisingly, Kaine has sought to energize his base by directly criticizing President Bush. Not long ago that might have been considered the political equivalent of bear-baiting in a state that Bush easily carried twice.

But Kaine thinks Bush's stature has eroded to the point where the Democrat felt comfortable recently telling supporters in a Northern Virginia suburb that the state could send the White House "a powerful message about the direction of the country if we win this race."

Kaine didn't repeat that language a few days later in conservative Shenandoah Valley towns such as Staunton. But even Virginia Republicans worry that Bush's sagging support might hurt Kilgore -- a judgment that some thought the candidate seconded when he did not attend a Bush speech in Norfolk on Friday because it was an official White House event, not a political one.

"One thing that is holding Jerry back is this national backdrop," said one senior Virginia GOP strategist, who spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing the campaign.

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