THE HEADLINES trumpeting Democrat Timothy M. Kaine's victory in Virginia's gubernatorial race Tuesday tended to drown out an important down-ticket theme of the elections: voters' evident distaste for politicians fixated on divisive cultural issues. It turns out that Virginians prefer politicians focused on problem-solving -- on education, transportation, health care and other issues that touch daily life. Think of it as the triumph of governance over politics.
That was a central ingredient not only in the defeat of Mr. Kaine's Republican rival, former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore, but also in legislative races around the state. Even in districts regarded as solidly conservative, voters punished Republican candidates who delighted in bashing gays but had no original thoughts about unclogging traffic. In Northern Virginia, incumbent Del. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun) and challengers Ron M. Grignol Jr. and Chris S. Craddock were all defeated, as was Del. Bradley P. Marrs (R-Richmond), who tried to smear his opponent for having accepted a campaign contribution from a gay businessman.
Other wedge-issue lawmakers received clear warnings. Republican Del. David B. Albo of southern Fairfax County, a 12-year incumbent in line for a powerful House committee chairmanship, used his campaign to attack illegal immigrants. Rather than striking a chord, Mr. Albo very nearly lost to a newcomer, Democrat Gregory A. Werkheiser. Another Republican incumbent who played the immigrant card, Del. Jeffrey M. Frederick of Prince William County, squeaked by his challenger by a razor-thin margin. There were similarly close calls for social conservatives downstate.
It's not that Virginia has suddenly tilted away from Republicans; they retain a 16-seat edge in the 100-member House of Delegates and are likely to keep control of the state Senate indefinitely. Rather, Virginians want pragmatists in the mold of Gov. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat who has eschewed hot-button issues that play on emotion and fear in favor of budgetary sanity, better schools and bipartisanship. The Republican who won statewide, Lt. Gov.-elect William T. Bolling, focused more on budget issues and less on wedge issues than did Mr. Kilgore, while the Democrat he defeated, Leslie L. Byrne, is more liberal than Mr. Kaine. A third statewide race, for attorney general, remains too close to call.
Some of the social conservatives who survived this election, such as Mr. Albo, are blaming their narrow scrapes on President Bush's travails. No doubt he and others will continue to press their agendas in Richmond come the General Assembly's next session in January. But the unmistakable message from this election is that they do so at their peril.