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3 Men, 3 Avenues to Va. Governorship

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By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 4, 2005

RICHMOND -- If this were any other state, Democratic Gov. Mark R. Warner probably would be riding his high job approval ratings to a lopsided reelection this fall.

But Virginia is the only state in the nation that automatically sends its governors packing after one term. And so this November, as they do every four years, Virginia voters will reinvent their state government and provide the rest of the nation an early glimpse at the current political mind-set.

"The voting trends all point Republican. But Mark Warner has shown there's a path to Democratic victory," said politics professor Mark J. Rozell, director of the Center for Public Policy at George Mason University. "People are talking about this as a genuine, competitive, two-party race that could go either way."

The candidates are two party stalwarts who started their campaigns for governor as Warner's term started and a maverick whose last-minute entry into the contest has tweaked the conventional political wisdom.

The Democrat is Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, the former Richmond mayor who claims to be the heir to Warner's pro-business, centrist policy agenda. Kaine wants the Nov. 8 election to unofficially be the referendum on Warner that the constitution officially prohibits.

The Republican is former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore, a lawyer from southwest Virginia who was part of the movement that brought the GOP back-to-back gubernatorial victories in the 1990s, as well as control of the legislature. A Kilgore win would reestablish the party's message of opposing tax increases and make Warner's victory in 2001 seem like a political aberration.

They are being shadowed by independent candidate H. Russell Potts Jr., a Republican state senator from Winchester with a sharp tongue and a shoestring campaign.

There are egos at stake besides those of the candidates. Warner and U.S. Sen. George Allen (R), who is strongly supporting Kilgore's campaign, are considered possible presidential candidates in 2008. Their supporters and detractors will read much into the results.

And political leaders are eyeing Virginia -- the only other governor's race this year is in New Jersey -- as a laboratory for issues that could shape the congressional midterm elections in 2006.

Republicans will be watching, nervously, for signs that rising gas prices, frustration with the Iraq war and President Bush's declining popularity will translate into trouble in future elections.

"Even if it doesn't result in a sea of voters going to the polls to take their anger out on the White House, what it may do is keep Republicans at home," said Jennifer Duffy, who tracks state campaigns for the Cook Political Report. "That's a problem for them."

And Democrats, demoralized by their showing in the South in the 2004 presidential election, are searching for signs that Virginia may be changing in ways that could favor certain Democrats. Losing one of the few governor's seats Democrats still hold in the region could dash those hopes.

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