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Democrats Hone the Brand
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By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, November 9, 2007

The Democratic surge that began in 2006 continued in elections around the country on Tuesday. But how the Democrats won provides a cautionary tale for the national party.

What you might call solutionism, not ideology, explained the Democratic victories. And an electorate in a decidedly bad temper did not always exempt Democrats from its ire.

Republicans are still reeling from their party's ideological obsessions and the unpopularity of President Bush. That was most obvious in Virginia, a state once considered a GOP fortress. Having won the governorship twice since 2001 and a U.S. Senate seat in 2006, the Democrats continued their march by taking control of the state Senate after a decade in the minority.

Gov. Tim Kaine (D) put his own popularity and fundraising ability on the line for his party's legislative candidates, and this by itself was significant.

Typically, moderate Democrats in swing states keep their distance from party concerns for fear of alienating more conservative voters. Kaine's risk-taking reflected his character -- he could not see himself "sleepwalking through an election," he said in a telephone interview yesterday. It also spoke to his party's growing confidence that voters want to buy what Democrats are selling.

But the pitch is unexpected: It casts Democrats as the party of nonpartisanship and relegates Republicans to the status of partisan ideologues. The products in the Democratic line are the consumer durables of education, transportation and economic growth.

"Voters have liked this focus on outcomes, good management and results," Kaine said, sounding more like a business consultant than a politician, "and they've seen that contrasting pretty sharply with hard ideology and a focus on social issues."

Indeed, Virginia Republicans are paying a price for squeezing out their more moderate members. For example, in the Newport News area, Marty Williams, a moderate Republican state Senate incumbent, was defeated in the primary by the staunchly conservative Tricia Stall. On Tuesday, Democrat John Miller defeated Stall in what had been a safely Republican district.

Democrats could also brag about their gubernatorial victory in Kentucky, where former lieutenant governor Steve Beshear ousted the Republican incumbent, Ernie Fletcher, who had been tarred by scandal. It would have taken a miracle for Fletcher to survive.

But Beshear swept the state with 59 percent of the vote, running well even in traditionally Republican areas. David Eichenbaum, a consultant to both Kaine and Beshear, argues that in state contests at least, Democrats have blunted Republican appeals on cultural issues and are winning over formerly Republican voters impatient with ideological polarization.

"Just as we're now communicating with voters on more of a values level," Eichenbaum says, "we're also reaching them with a message of nonpartisanship with the goal of getting things done. But, we need to follow through and govern that way as well, or it ends up coming off as a political stunt."

There's the rub: Governing can be hard. One of the few bright spots for the Republicans -- other than the widely expected reelection of Gov. Haley Barbour in Mississippi -- was the startling upset of Indianapolis's Democratic mayor, Bart Peterson, by Republican Greg Ballard.

Peterson was generally seen as a success in office, and Ballard was so much the underdog that he got little help from Indiana's Republican governor, Mitch Daniels. But the establishment's coolness may have only underscored Ballard's outsider status. He rode to victory on voter unhappiness with tax increases and crime.

Ballard's triumph, observed Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), is a warning for all incumbents, including Democrats. "There is a strong discontent at all levels," said Davis, whose wife, state Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis, was one of the Republican victims in Tuesday's voting, "and if you find the right seam, you can exploit it."

This discontent also felled a slew of incumbent mayors in Ohio and gave Democrats a significant victory over a Republican incumbent in Canton, a race both parties had targeted in the nation's leading battleground state. Democrats now dominate in Ohio's largest cities.

Moreover, Davis noted that Bush continues to be "radioactive," giving Republicans "a terrible brand name," particularly among "educated, wealthy folks who used to be the backbone of our party."

That may well keep the Democratic tide rolling through 2008. But facing a president who shows little interest in making deals with them -- and harboring doubts about whether such a strategy could work anyway -- congressional Democrats are unlikely to join their state colleagues in finding deliverance in nonpartisan problem-solving. Washington is not yet ready for the Tim Kaine model, even if the country is.

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