President Bush's Election Day romp in Virginia reminds Democrats of a political reality as they seek to retain control of the governor's mansion: Winning the inner suburbs of Northern Virginia is simply never enough.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) racked up huge vote totals in Fairfax County, Arlington and Alexandria, besting Bush by more than 75,000 votes in those jurisdictions. The vote is the latest indication that the suburbs nearest the District are becoming more reliably Democratic as they become more urban and more ethnically diverse.
But even if Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, the Democratic Party's likely nominee for governor, can duplicate Kerry's feat, his lead could be whittled away by Republican strongholds in Loudoun and Prince William counties, and across the state's rural heartland.
Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), elected a year after President Bush's first victory in Virginia, said Tuesday he was surprised Kerry did not do better statewide. But he rejected Republican statements that the election was a disaster for Virginia Democrats. "We always knew it would be a tall order" for Kerry to win Virginia, he said.
Republicans said yesterday that Bush's nine-point victory over Kerry statewide provides a practical and psychological boost to Kaine's likely challenger, Republican Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore, who was the president's campaign chairman in Virginia. The race between the two starts now.
"How on earth do they have the spirit and the heart to move forward? This was such a crushing defeat," Ken Hutcheson, Kilgore's campaign manager, said of the Democrats. "We've got the momentum. We've got the unity. We've got the enthusiasm."
Hutcheson said Bush received record support in the rock-solid GOP area of Rockingham, Shenandoah and Augusta counties. If Kilgore matches that performance and does equally well in southwest and Southside Virginia, he easily could be elected governor next year.
"The math," Hutcheson said. "Tim Kaine can't go head-to-head with Jerry Kilgore."
Democrats said the results from the presidential contest offer little guidance for a governor's race. They said the issues differ greatly -- for example, national security vs. state budgets -- and they expressed confidence that Kaine will find a way back to the electoral landscape that existed when Warner won.
"We're going to do the same thing we did in 2001, right after Bush won in 2000," said Mike Henry, Kaine's campaign manager. "We are going to run on the issues, run hard and we're going to run to win."
Democrats had hoped that a close election between Kerry and Bush would be evidence of a fundamental shift in Virginia politics. Coming on the heels of Warner's victory, it would have called into question the assumption that the state is reliably Republican.
That didn't happen, in part because Kerry conceded the state after initially investing about $2 million. Bush's 54 percent to 45 percent victory Tuesday was larger that the president's margin in 2000, when he beat Vice President Al Gore by eight points in a three-way race with independent Ralph Nader, who was not on the ballot this year.
But Kaine, who already was campaigning yesterday morning in Martinsville, vowed to run a repeat of Warner's race, when the millionaire businessman neutralized many cultural issues and won with a slight majority in the state's rural parts, as well as in Northern Virginia. Kaine ran a similar race for lieutenant governor.
"It's easy for me to get back to the playbook," Kaine said. "That's the race I ran in 2001. To win, you have to have a very pro-business, pro-economic development profile. And you have to connect easily with people of faith."
Steve Jarding, Warner's campaign manager in 2001 and now a professor of politics at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, said Tuesday's vote should not threaten Kaine's effort.
People in many states vote differently for president and governor. New York, California, Massachusetts and Maryland are among the most reliable Democratic states in presidential elections. Yet all have Republican governors.
And in Virginia, which holds gubernatorial elections the year after presidential contests, there is a decades-long history of choosing a Republican president one year and a Democratic governor the next. It happened in 1980-81, 1984-85, 1988-89 and in 2000-01.
"A Democrat can win in Virginia," Jarding said. "There's a blueprint out there to make it work. Tim Kaine's going to figure out, 'Here's the message I take to Virginia.' He's going to make a case. Jerry Kilgore's going to do the same thing. Whoever's best at crafting that message and making the case probably is going to be the guy who's successful."
The message battle already has begun. In a strategy memo sent yesterday to top state Republicans, Hutcheson wrote that the Bush campaign machine, which will now morph into the Kilgore machine, is "battle tested and well-prepared."
"The traditional formula for a Democrat win statewide looks unlikely at best in 2005," he said.
But even some Republicans said their party should not take a Kilgore victory for granted. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), a longtime Fairfax County politician and an expert political strategist, said GOP disagreements during this year's battle over tax increases will "reappear with a vengeance" during next year's campaigns.
And he said the Republicans will be forced to fight the 2005 governor's race partly on turf that Warner and Kaine have defended successfully: the financial integrity of the state government.
"Virginia is uphill for Democrats," Davis said. "To win as a Democrat in Virginia, you can't be average. That's their burden. But it's a different dynamic [than the presidential race]. A state election is held on state issues. Where is the state fiscally? Do they like Mark Warner?"