By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 19, 2005
People who study Virginia politics often recite this fact: In every governor's race since 1973, voters have selected the candidate from the opposite party of the one that controls the White House.
That means two Democrats for Ronald Reagan. Two Republicans for Bill Clinton. A Democrat for each Bush.
Politicians and strategists are not sure whether Virginians use their status as the first to go to the polls after a presidential election to send a message to the party in power, or whether the streak is a coincidence.
But the role that national politics plays in the gubernatorial race is gaining attention as President Bush's popularity fades in the state, as Republican fortunes falter in Washington and as the contest for the governor's mansion in Richmond grows tighter. Most politicians and consultants believe that the national political debate is only a tiny factor in voters' decisions about who should run their state, but that even minuscule shifts can affect a campaign that is seen as a toss-up.
"In the end, each campaign becomes a choice between two candidates, with two different philosophies," said Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), who was part of the 24-year streak when he was elected governor in 1993 and who puts himself in the "coincidence" camp. "But everything has an impact on voters' minds."
Until now, Bush's drop in the polls has been about the only thing that has not gone according to script in the governor's race. Republican Jerry W. Kilgore, the former attorney general, characterizes himself as a perfect fit for the conservative-leaning state and tries to portray Democratic Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine as too liberal. His emotional ads on Kaine's opposition to the death penalty last week were the latest attempt to paint Kaine as out of step with the state.
Kaine has steadfastly promoted himself as the logical successor to popular outgoing Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) and has branded Kilgore as eager to halt the "progress" that Virginians have respected the past four years, according to public opinion polls.
But few could have predicted the growing public dissatisfaction with the GOP leadership in Washington and Bush's declining popularity in a state that he won in November with nearly 54 percent of the vote.
The litany of reasons is familiar: rising gas and heating oil prices, the continuing war in Iraq, scandals involving some of the nation's most powerful Republicans and a federal government that did not look its best in response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Although polls have shown Bush being more popular in Virginia than nationally, the numbers are far from his triumphant reelection 11 months ago.
At the time, Ken Hutcheson, who was Bush's campaign manager in Virginia and who now runs Kilgore's campaign, said Democrats should be crestfallen that Bush reclaimed Virginia after Warner's win in 2001.
"How on earth do they have the spirit and the heart to move forward? This was such a crushing defeat," Hutcheson said.
But much has changed. "I know that Northern Virginia is very anxious to send a message to the White House," said Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.). "I think Tim Kaine is going to be the beneficiary of that."
Other Democrats think it is possible to overstate the significance of Bush's troubles and of voters' inclination to make decisions about who should lead their state based on what is happening in the White House.
"If I'm trying to decide between two guys who I'm going to vote for for governor, I don't run that through a prism of who's running the White House," said Steve Jarding, a Democratic political consultant who ran Warner's campaign in 2001. He said that Virginia's streak of electing governors from the opposite party of the president's "doesn't mean anything."
That said, he agrees that the problems for Bush and national Republicans create a changed environment for the Virginia race.
That change probably will affect the Washington suburbs the most.
"Northern Virginia being so close to Washington and so many people working in the federal government, what goes on [in national politics] is much more important to them," said Allen.
"Off-year elections have always been used to send a message to the president," said Professor Larry J. Sabato of the University of Virginia, an expert on the state's elections.
Because Northern Virginia as a region recently has been more hospitable to Democrats, Moran said he thinks Kaine would do well to appeal to voters who see politics more through the national lens. "Tim is somewhat more moderate than the national Democratic Party, but Kilgore is just as conservative as the national Republican leadership," Moran said. "It is not an unfair" proxy.
Allen and others do not think federal issues work for state candidates. But Allen laughingly acknowledged that he was quick to use voter unhappiness with the first year of President Bill Clinton's administration in his campaign against Mary Sue Terry, the Democratic attorney general.
"One of my favorite lines of that campaign was when I was having a fundraiser" in Pulaski County on the same day Terry was at Sen. John D. Rockefeller's mansion in Washington. "I said, 'I'd rather be eating hot dogs with you in Pulaski County than sipping wine and nibbling cheese with Mary Sue Terry and Hillary Clinton up in Washington, D.C.,' " Allen said.
He said he saw how a loss can energize one's political base.
"My campaign was a good motivator for people who wanted to get back to winning," Allen said.
It's unclear whether such a mood blossomed after last year. A Washington Post poll of Virginia registered voters conducted Sept. 6 through 9 indicated some anger at the president; asked whether Bush's endorsement of Kilgore made them more likely to support him, less likely or had no effect, 45 percent said less likely, compared with 28 percent who said more likely. By comparison, 37 percent said Warner's endorsement of Kaine made them more likely to support the Democrat, compared with 27 percent who said less likely.
Mo Elleithee, communications director for the Kaine campaign, said that voters will decide on which candidate to support based on state issues and that their opinion of how Virginia is being run compared with the national government is a comparison that would help Democrats.
Jarding agreed. "Virginians seem to like the direction Warner took the state and they clearly don't think, according to polls, that President Bush is taking the country in the right direction," he said. "It could be a very small sliver of voters [that makes that analysis], but in a very close race, that could make a difference."
Tim Murtaugh, Kilgore's press secretary, said what happens outside the state is immaterial.
Bush came for a fundraiser for Kilgore in July, and "we're still very pleased to have the support of the leader of the free world," Murtaugh said. He said he did not know whether Bush would return to Virginia before Election Day.