The ecstatic crowd gathered to celebrate Democrat Tim Kaine's election as governor of Virginia was ready to shout its assent Tuesday night to absolutely every applause line. But you could feel the extra jolt of electricity when Gov. Mark Warner, Kaine's leading supporter, spoke of a certain administration presiding over the national government about a hundred miles north of here.
Republicans, Warner said, once wanted to ask voters: "Let's compare how things are going in Washington versus how things are going in Virginia." The experienced political activists in the room knew what was coming next and began rumbling their approval when Warner got to his money line: "We'll take that comparison any day of the week!"
What was a very good night for Kaine and Warner was a miserable night for President Bush. Democrats not only won an away game in Virginia but also won on their home ground in New Jersey, where Sen. Jon Corzine took the day's other gubernatorial contest. During a vicious campaign, Corzine attributed almost anything bad that was said about him to Bush and his political architect, Karl Rove.
In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was rebuked on every proposition he put on the ballot to get around the state's Democratic legislature. And New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a former Democrat turned nominal Republican, won reelection handily only after doing all he could to separate himself from the Bush administration, even opposing the confirmation of Chief Justice John Roberts.
But it was in Virginia, a state that gave Bush 54 percent of its ballots a year ago, that Democrats had the most to learn. Bush guaranteed that the nation's eyes would be focused here by campaigning for Republican Jerry Kilgore just hours before the polls opened. A year ago Republicans everywhere begged and pleaded for the boost in turnout among the faithful that a Bush rally could once guarantee. This year there was no Bush magic.
The failure of Bush and Kilgore marked the end of the line for a certain style of Republican politics. Harsh attacks on Kaine for opposing the death penalty backfired. Kilgore also figured he could ride the old social-issue train to victory in a Southern state. He declared himself "the pro-gun, anti-tax, limited government, anti-illegal immigration, pro-public safety, pro-death penalty, culture-of-life, trust-the-people conservative."
In an interview in his office just before the polls closed, a jovial, slightly jumpy Warner noted the failure of that predictable litany. Voters, he said, preferred candidates who dealt with questions that governors "actually spend 98 percent of their time working on." They are the basics: the budget, health care, education, transportation and job growth, especially in declining areas.
You can already see the outlines of Warner's likely 2008 presidential candidacy with his talk of a "sensible center." And there is a lovely homeliness to Warner's description of what voters really want from government. "They want to see stuff done," Warner says. "They don't care if it's Republican or Democratic. They want to see stuff done."
Yet, if Warner was immensely helpful, it was Kaine who won with a notably innovative campaign. Democrats all over the country will study how this devout Catholic explained his opposition to the death penalty as a matter of deep religious concern. The strangest thing is that because the death penalty issue encouraged Kaine to talk about his faith, it may have helped him with conservative voters.
"This is a very good proving ground for the belief that Democrats can talk about values and their faith and it will make a difference," said Karl Struble, a top Kaine adviser.
David Eichenbaum, another Kaine adviser, noted how faith immunized Kaine from the dreaded L-word. Focus groups were shown "the worst attacks against Tim that they would use to make him into a big bad liberal." The groups were then shown footage of Kaine "talking about the importance to him of his religious values and convictions." The result? "Almost to a person, they would say that he must be a moderate or a conservative, and that he couldn't be a liberal."
And then there were Kaine's proposals to rein in exurban sprawl, which helped him carry outer suburbs in Prince William and Loudoun counties, something even Warner had not been able to do. Pete Brodnitz, Kaine's pollster, argued that outer suburban voters saw controlling growth as a better solution to the region's transportation problems than more "taxing and paving," as Kaine would put it.
So, yes, Tuesday's elections will be seen as a rebuke to Bush. But they may be more important as the moment Democrats finally figured out how to talk without embarrassment about God and the practical uses of government.