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End Results

A Winning Southern Model

Learn From a NASCAR-Loving, Hunter-Friendly Democrat

By Michael Signer
Sunday, November 21, 2004; Page B04

Many Democrats in Virginia have processed John Kerry's loss in the presidential election in stages: disbelief (the stunned befuddlement of Nov. 3), sadness (the sinking stomach of Nov. 4) and outrage (the rapidly spreading conviction, beginning roughly on Nov. 5, that the election had been "stolen" by nefarious, Terminator-like voting machines).

Now many are contemplating a closing stage -- acceptance. It's about time. As a Kerry campaign aide in Virginia, I found the conspiracy theory particularly frustrating. We ran a terrific campaign in the Old Dominion, recruiting several thousand volunteers and registering hundreds of thousands of new voters. But the Democrats lost Virginia for the same reason we lost the country: We couldn't convince culturally conservative Americans that we were on their side.

Just look at the facts. Of Virginia's 11 congressional districts, Kerry won the urban, left-leaning 8th (which includes Arlington and Alexandria) and 3rd (spanning liberal precincts from Richmond to Tidewater). But he suffered devastating losses in the rural and conservative 1st, 6th and 9th and was soundly defeated in all the rest.

So why are so many Democrats now looking to Virginia for hints of a new direction? Because the campaign crafted by Democrat Mark Warner to win the Virginia governorship three years ago differs so fundamentally from the national Democratic pattern that it deserves close study. The recent surge of interest in Warner as a candidate for the White House in 2008 is a sign that Democrats are recognizing that they need to reach out to rural and conservative Americans, as Warner has successfully done.

National Democrats certainly have a lot to learn. Aside from their early plays (later abandoned) for Louisiana, West Virginia and Virginia, John Kerry and his running mate, John Edwards, only rarely visited any of the reddest states during the campaign. For this, they were punished with breathtaking losses throughout the South and much of the West. The Democratic ticket even failed to seriously contest Edwards's home state of North Carolina. Contrast that with Warner in 2001. The businessman-turned-politician approached his campaign for governor with a simple formula: He actually went to red Virginia, introduced himself, and showed the voters there respect. And won.

Unlike Kerry, Warner carried the 9th Congressional district, the state's most rural and conservative, which stretches west from Roanoke to the Kentucky border. In Lee County, at the very tip of Southwest Virginia, where Bush beat Kerry by 17 points, Warner won by 7 points. He also posted victories in conservative strongholds such as Bath and Alleghany counties, both bordering West Virginia; Kerry lost both.

Warner engineered this victory even though Democrats have had a pretty rough time in the Old Dominion since the heyday of the 1980s, when we held the governor's office and controlled the state legislature. Throughout the 1990s, our dominance steadily declined. From majorities in both houses in the mid-'90s, we went to 37 of 100 delegates and 16 of 40 senators today.

Warner learned some lessons from his 1996 U.S. Senate campaign against incumbent Republican John Warner, a race he lost largely in rural Virginia. In the late '90s, well before his campaign for governor began in earnest, he was already traveling to red Virginia and breaking bread with voters over local economic development and rural health care. He even launched several rural venture capital funds with the help of local investors.

Now, Warner enjoys an approval rating of more than 60 percent. And his approach apparently has coattails -- even if they're a little delayed. In Virginia's mid-term elections in 2003, Democrats reclaimed three seats in the House of Delegates.

These accomplishments belie the conventional wisdom that a red state Democrat must either be as folksy as Dr. Phil or as religious as, well, George W. Bush to succeed. Warner grew up in Connecticut and attended George Washington University. He studied law at Harvard before becoming a successful high-tech entrepreneur in Alexandria. No one will ever mistake him for a Bubba. And he rarely talks about religion in public life, reserving the discussion of moral values for issues of public policy, such as health care for poor children.

So what explains his success? Part of the answer lies in his early grasp of the importance of culture in American politics. Across swaths of Virginia, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a hero, hunting is an honored tradition and country music is gospel. In his campaign for governor, Warner visited NASCAR races and allied with sportsmen on gun issues. If he'd simply been posturing, this wouldn't have gotten him anywhere. But Warner convinced red Virginia he was serious about putting himself in their shoes. He recognized that, like urban liberals, they are reasonable, critical and discerning. This helped him understand their resentment of coastal Democrats' often condescending attitudes toward rural America.

With the culture door open -- or at least not closed -- Warner was able to attack issues of general importance to all Virginians, like local economic development, reforming education and aggressively signing up children for health insurance. His biggest insight was recognizing that Virginians wanted a leader who would run government more professionally and less politically, who would push it to do what government does best -- deliver education, improve transportation, protect the air and water. His focus on results has been Virginia Democrats' touchstone ever since.

From his first day in the Capitol, Warner couldn't avoid dealing with the budget mess left behind by his predecessor, GOP Gov. Jim Gilmore, and exacerbated by legislative Republicans' tax-cutting and deficit spending. When Republicans attacked his creative strategy to restructure the tax system to raise state income, Warner returned to the people to make his case. He held dozens of town meetings on the budget throughout the commonwealth. The image of a Democratic governor wielding a dry-erase marker to explain a yawningly complex plan in red Virginia's diners seems almost comical. But it worked. Warner's budget is now law, and the commonwealth is back on the road to fiscal responsibility.

Here's the message to national Democrats in Warner's tale: Take care not to use window-dressing to ply the red vote. With all due respect to the Kerry campaign, winning over red America will take a lot more than going goose-hunting in a borrowed sportsman's coat. Culture and values will open the door to red America, but they won't close the deal. Assuming that red Americans care only about God, guns and gays will just replicate the condescension that alienated them in the first place.

The ultimate lesson from Virginia is that on issues from abortion to gay rights to gun control, Democrats simply have to stop assuming that all conservatives are motivated by invidious impulses, by animus. Aside from the gross indifference to the actual content of conservatives' character, this cracked lens distorts Democrats' own political vision. By assuming that our opponents' thoughts, feelings and policies are rooted in the dark soil of Hades, we're unable to understand how they really think and, more importantly, how they succeed.

Somewhere in the late 1960s and early 1970s, national Democrats abandoned the pragmatic populism of the New Deal and the labor movement and began instead to think of our positions as ethereal, beyond argument and persuasion, and almost divinely enlightened. The larger lesson of the Kerry campaign is that on social issues, Democrats can be just as sanctimonious as the Republicans we mock. If we behave as if we're receiving the Light from a great sun beaming empathy, compassion and progress into the universe, it should hardly come as a surprise when we find ourselves basking alone in its rays.

In Virginia under Warner, bipartisanship has been central. Instead of demonizing Republicans and deifying Democrats, Warner chose "One Virginia" as his campaign slogan. And during the budget fight, he forged a powerful alliance with a breakaway group of moderate Republicans -- many from rural and conservative areas.

As the sociologist Max Weber observed, politics is the slow boring of hard boards. Democrats won't become the majority party overnight, not in Virginia and not in America. Today we stand at a crossroads: Will we retreat behind the ramparts of blue America? Or will we swallow our pride and reach out? As we've learned in Virginia, Democrats can win again. But we have to be creative, open and respectful of the views of all Americans -- even if they aren't Democrats.

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Michael Signer worked as a Legal Fellow for Gov. Mark Warner in the fall of 2003 and is a recent graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law. He lives in Arlington.

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