Forget the Spin: Here’s What Really Happened In Tuesday’s Elections

by Stuart Rothenberg November 17, 2005 · 10:47 AM EST

Much of what you’ve read and heard about Tuesday’s election results is wrong. That goes for the panicky blame-laying by some Republicans and conservatives, as well as the wild claims of resurgence by Democrats.

“Americans” did not “resoundingly” support “the new priorities of Democratic candidates over the status quo policies of President Bush and Republican leadership,” as Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) claimed Tuesday night. That’s just being “on message.” It’s horrendous political analysis.

On the other side of the spectrum is columnist Robert Novak, who seems unable to explain the Virginia results beyond blaming Bush or complainingthat GOP nominee Jerry Kilgore wasn’t conservative enough. But Novak needonly look to Democratic governors in normally Republican Wyoming, Arizona and Kansas, and to Republican governors in Hawaii, Massachusetts and Rhode Island to understand that states often elect governors from the “wrong”(that is, minority) party.

New Jersey is easy to decipher. Democratic presidential nominees John Kerry (Mass.) and Al Gore carried it by 7 and 16 points respectively, drawing 53percent and 56 percent. Jon Corzine drew 53 percent of the vote and won byalmost 10 points on Tuesday. In other words, a Democratic state elected a Democratic governor by a “normal” Democratic margin after a bitter, personalrace. End of discussion.

In Virginia, Democrats won the governorship (as they did in 1981, 1985, 1989and 2001) but lost the two other statewide races, albeit narrowly, forlieutenant governor and attorney general. In the state House of Delegates,Democrats gained only a single seat, so the Republicans still have a 58-39 edge over Democrats – a microscopic change from before Election Day. That’s hardly a sweeping Democratic victory. It’s not even close.

Anyway, Tim Kaine (D) defeated Kilgore (R) for governor by about 113,000 votes, a slightly bigger margin than Democrat Mark Warner’s 96,943-voteplurality over Republican Mark Earley four years ago. Most of Kaine’s victory margin (105,000 votes) came from three Northern Virginia areas -Arlington County, Fairfax County and Alexandria City. Total turnout in the three jurisdictions was largely unchanged from 2001.

The results from Fairfax County were stunning. Warner won the county by26,000 votes four years ago, while Kaine’s margin ballooned to 57,000 votes. Kaine drew about 14,000 votes more than Warner did, while Kilgore drew17,000 fewer votes than Earley.

Kaine, a former Richmond mayor, did better than expected in two otherregions of note. He won Virginia Beach narrowly (Mark Warner lost it by almost 7 points in 2001), and he bested Warner’s showing in Chesterfield andHenrico, near Richmond. Kaine’s strategists targeted suburban voters, and their efforts apparentlywere successful. “Weak” Republicans and swing voters seem to have desertedthe GOP nominee this year, which is something that Republicans ought toworry about given the party’s reliance on suburban voters nationally.

One astute Democratic insider I talked with had no doubt why the Democrat won. This observer insisted that Kaine won on leadership – convincing suburbanites that Warner had been an effective governor and that Kaine wouldstay the course and move the state forward. The Democrat noted that Kaineeffectively painted himself as a bipartisan, fiscally responsible, conservative Democrat while challenging Kilgore on crime, taxes andtransportation.

It’s important to note that Bill Bolling, the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor, drew 66,000 more votes than Kilgore did, and that BobMcDonnell, the GOP’s nominee for attorney general, drew 58,000 more than hisparty’s nominee for governor. These discrepancies were largest in Republican areas, such as Roanoke,Virginia Beach, Chesterfield and York counties. In those places, Kilgore generally ran behind his ticket mates 4.5 percent to 10 percent.

Kilgoretrailed his colleagues in Northern Virginia, too, but much more narrowly.Kilgore’s weak showing suggests that Republican voters simply didn’t like him. Maybe it was his Southwest Virginia style, his ads, his record – I don’t know. But for whatever reason, they didn’t vote for him.

The results don’t support the conclusion that Bush caused Kilgore to lose. If that were the case, Republicans would have lost all three statewide contests and many more legislative races. In reality, a number of factorsundoubtedly worked to Kaine’s advantage. Mark Warner’s popularity helped,and Kaine’s moderate rhetoric proved effective. Plus, Kilgore didn’t help himself. Bush obviously was a liability, particularly in Northern Virginia, but I doubt that it cost Kilgore more than a couple of points statewide.

One Democratic operative summed up the meaning of the gubernatorial election perfectly. “This wasn’t about Democratic turnout efforts or the lack of Republican turnout. It was a persuasion win” for Kaine.

Maybe the best way to think about the ’05 Virginia governor’s race is tothink back to the 2000 presidential contest, when Gore sought to succeed a popular president who had a major character flaw that elevated a set ofcultural issues, which ultimately undid Gore.

Kaine, too, sought to succeed a popular officeholder from his own party, but he did not have to overcome the baggage that Gore did. Unlike Gore, whorefused to identify with or campaign alongside former President Bill Clinton, Kaine attached himself to Warner, arguing that his election wouldproduce, in effect, a second Warner term. Suburban voters liked that idea,and they didn’t warm to Kilgore.

Virginia voters selected Kaine, who ran as a pro-business, bipartisan socialmoderate, at the same time they were electing two Republicans statewide andaffirming the GOP’s solid control of the House of Delegates. That’s hardly evidence of a Democratic wave. So while Kaine’s convincing victory should give Republicans pause and concern, it ought not cause panic in Republican ranks.

Finally, I still expect 2006 to be a very good Democratic year, with the House probably coming into play and Democrats poised to make major gains in the Senate. My caveat is that Tuesday’s results have nothing to do with that assessment.