For GOP, 2006 Now Looms Much Larger

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 10, 2005

In a season of discontent for the White House, Tuesday's election results intensified Republican anxiety that next year's midterm contests could bring serious losses unless George W. Bush finds a way to turn around his presidency and shore up support among disaffected, moderate swing voters.

Off-year gubernatorial contests in Virginia and New Jersey have proved to be unreliable predictors of elections, as Republican officials were quick to point out yesterday. But as short-term indicators, Tuesday's results confirmed that nothing happened to alter a political climate that now tilts against the GOP and that the president remains in the midst of a slump.

But Democrats may also have to learn some of the lessons from Tuesday if they hope to capitalize on Bush's weakness and make themselves competitive in red states as well as blue states. In Virginia, victorious candidate Timothy M. Kaine ran a campaign at odds with the strategy of many traditional Democrats, one that focused on religion and values and that appealed as much to swing voters as to the party's base.

Democrats captured the two governorships at stake Tuesday, in Virginia and New Jersey, where Sen. Jon S. Corzine ran away with the race after a nasty campaign. Democrats also buried four ballot initiatives in California championed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and ousted the mayor of St. Paul, Minn., Democrat Randy Kelly, who had betrayed his party by endorsing Bush in last year's presidential election. Democrats failed in their effort to pass a package of political retooling measures in Ohio.

Republican hopes for a quick morale boost had centered on conservative Virginia. Instead, the gubernatorial results there raised concerns among some Republicans that Bush's favored political strategy of mobilizing conservative voters by dividing the electorate on cultural and social issues may have prompted a backlash among voters in inner and outer suburbs who were vital to Bush's reelection in 2004.

"It's not just that they lost these elections," said Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin, "but that none of their old tricks worked that they've relied on to give them the edge in close contests."

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) said the GOP's reliance on cultural issues, popular with rural voters, "are just blowing up" in suburban and exurban communities. "You play to your rural base, you pay a price," he said.

Kaine's campaign highlighted tensions within the Democratic Party over whether to pursue a strategy designed largely to energize its left-leaning, antiwar, grass-roots base or move to the center, emphasize cultural issues to neutralize the GOP's advantage there, and talk bread-and-butter issues such as education and economic growth.

Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman said that Kaine adopted a strategy sharply at odds with the approach of leading national Democrats, including the one that was enunciated by Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean during his unsuccessful campaign for the party's 2004 presidential nomination.

Kaine "did not say, 'I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,' " Mehlman said, referring to language Dean used in his own campaign. "He said, 'I represent the Mark Warner wing of the Democratic Party.' Quite the opposite. . . . The Potomac River divides a Democratic Party catering to the MoveOn wing versus a Democratic Party centered in the Mark Warner wing." Indeed, Kaine's success owed less to dissatisfaction with Bush and more to satisfaction with Warner's tenure as governor.

Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) said there is an important lesson for Democrats in the Virginia results, arguing that Kaine turned the campaign in his direction by persuasively linking his opposition to the death penalty to his religious faith.

"If you have the luxury of running in New York or California, you might run a different campaign," he said. "But if you run in most of the swing states, for every progressive voter there are probably two swing voters. You've got to appeal to the moderate voters. Swing voters do not respond well to partisanship and to negative campaigning. What they're really looking for are people with integrity and people trying to solve their problems."

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