Mark R. Warner and George W. Bush are getting the credit and the blame for the surprisingly wide Democratic victory in Tuesday's Virginia governor election. But two other politicians also deserve scrutiny.
"I think we're going to have to look very carefully at two individuals -- Tim Kaine and Jerry Kilgore -- to see what they did right and what they did wrong," said state Sen. Jay O'Brien (R-Fairfax), "rather than look for broad conclusions" about the meaning of the race.
Politicians and analysts picking through details of Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's victory over the former Republican attorney general found evidence to support almost any theory -- anger against Bush, enthusiasm for Warner, Kilgore's negative campaign tactics. And to that end, it suggests that Tuesday's election, like most, was unique to the time and a result of many coinciding factors, not the least of which may be that Kaine ran a better campaign.
Kaine was blessed with an electorate that was pretty happy with the direction of the state and an endorsement from fellow Democrat Warner, the man to whom Virginians give much of the credit. But that doesn't mean that the 47-year-old former Richmond mayor ran the same winning campaign that Warner debuted four years ago.
While Warner appealed to rural voters with a NASCAR racer and a promise of economic development, Kaine targeted the state's urban areas and the people who lived near them.
"It was all about the suburbs," said Kaine pollster Peter Brodnitz, when asked whether he was surprised Kaine had won in Loudoun and Prince William counties, usually safe havens for a Republican candidate. "The whole strategy was designed for those people."
Although those voters may be socially conservative, Brodnitz said the more important issues for them are those that affect why they live where they live. That led to Kaine proposals on property tax relief, on spending more money on education, and to respond to their complaints about growth and traffic.
By contrast, Warner recalled how Kilgore made comments at the end of the campaign that he was the "pro-gun-owner, anti-tax, limited-government, anti-illegal-immigration, pro-public-safety, pro-death-penalty . . . trust-the-people conservative."
"Ninety-eight percent of the job is how you balance the budget, how you educate kids, how you deal with transportation," Warner said. "People like to see stuff getting done."
Kaine also connected with those voters, according to his campaign strategists, by talking about his religious background and the Catholic beliefs that formed his opposition to the death penalty, the issue that the Kilgore campaign thought would be the most damaging for him. "It allowed him to say he's not a liberal, he's someone who has values like yours," said Brodnitz.
Kaine rolled up a more than 100,000-vote margin north of the Rappahannock River but also had a big night in the suburbs and in the area of Hampton Roads and around Richmond. He won in reliably Republican Virginia Beach.
While Kilgore dealt with the same issues that Kaine addressed, his campaign was much more closely associated with the negative television commercials it aired to attack Kaine.
"You basically had a cultural race -- death penalty, immigration -- and cultural races don't play well in suburban areas," said Rep. Thomas Davis, a Fairfax Republican who saw Kaine take 55 percent of the vote in his district. "Jerry just failed to connect with those areas."
Although the Northern Virginia vote was decisive in Tuesday's election, Davis noted that the state Republican Party is still controlled by a downstate establishment and said that there has not been a Northern Virginian on the state GOP ticket for five straight elections. "We had virtually no input into the [Kilgore campaign]. All the decisions were made in Richmond."
Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) represents the neighboring district, which was also won by Kaine. Like Davis, he praised Kilgore as a good man but said there was something missing from the campaign.
"I've been out there for the last two weeks [campaigning for Kilgore], and you could just feel there was a different mood than I've experienced before," he said. "The mood in the capital [Washington] kind of spreads over Northern Virginia."
Virginia doesn't register voters by party, but exit polls after the 2004 presidential election found that people identifying themselves as Republicans outnumbered those who said they were Democrats by about 4 percent. But when Brodnitz and other pollsters asked voters whether they were definitely going to the polls this year, that Republican advantage dropped to 2 percent. In other words, Kilgore was gearing his appeal to a base that was shrinking, while the clout of Democrats, and especially independents, grew.
Those voters were especially unhappy with the negative tone of the Kilgore campaign.
Kaine's victory means that when he leaves office in 2010, Democrats will have controlled the governor's office for 20 of the past 28 years in Republican-leaning Virginia (and marks now the eighth straight time that Virginians have chosen a governor from the opposite party of the president).
But Republicans hold both U.S. Senate seats, eight of 11 spots in the state's congressional delegation and two of the three statewide offices, depending on whether Robert McDonnell holds on to his lead in the attorney general race. The Republicans lost a seat in the state House but still easily control the General Assembly.
"I think to try to make broad comments about the demise of the Republican Party in Virginia is just wrong," O'Brien said. "But I think it shows that the electorate, in every election in Virginia, is waiting to be impressed" and is willing to vote for the candidate of either party who makes the case.
Staff writer Michael D. Shear and researcher Derek Willis contributed to this report.