How the Dems Won Virginia

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Democrat Timothy M. Kaine's quick and convincing victory in the Virginia Governor's race Tuesday night gave his party a huge morale edge and fund-raising boost heading into next year's midterm congressional elections, and perhaps a lesson for the next Presidential race of '08: Democrats can talk about religion too.

The first ad that Kaine bought in his quest for the statehouse in Richmond was on a Christian radio station in rural Virginia. His first television spot of the fall told about his experience with Catholic missionaries, when he took a one-year leave from Harvard Law School to service as principal of a vocational school teaching carpentry and welding to teenagers in Honduras. Red, white and blue "Catholics for Kaine" bumper stickers proliferated in the Old Dominion. David Eichenbaum, Kaine's media strategist, tells TIME that he sees a recipe for national Democrats in Kaine's victory in Virginia, a GOP stronghold that President Bush won by 8 points in 2000 and 9 points in 2004. "Talking about his faith gave people a comfort level that he wasn't a big, scary liberal," Eichenbaum said. "We're trying to show voters that God isn't a Republican." Kaine echoed that in his acceptance speech: "We proved that faith in God is a value for all, and that we can all share, regardless of our partisan label."

It was a discouraging night for the White House. The other marquee contest was for Governor of New Jersey, where Sen. Jon S. Corzine, a Democrat, drubbed Republican benefits-management executive Doug Forrester. Across the Hudson, Republican Michael Bloomberg was easily reelected Mayor of New York City in a blowout of Democrat Fernando Ferrer.

In the Old Dominion, Kaine, 47, and his opponent, Republican Jerry Kilgore, 44, held their election-night parties across the street from each other in downtown Richmond, with an Elton John concert two blocks away, creating mayhem in the normally sedate capital. Kilgore's bash, decorated with bunches of balloons in the hunters' blaze orange that was his campaign trademark, never got started. It was in a vast space, with no toes tapping to the toe-tapping country music. Across Fifth Street, Democrats roared as each update about the race was flashed on the Richmond stations' ticker running beneath prime-time entertainment programming projected on a pair of giant screens. The contrast was astounding from 24 hours earlier when more than 4,000 whoopin' and hollerin' Republicans jammed into a hangar for an hour-long drop-in by President Bush, who took ownership of the outcome of Kilgore's race with a get-out-the-vote rally for the ages. Bush's approval rating in Virginia is a little better than half that of the current governor, Democrat Mark R. Warner, and it was clear when the President decided to come in that Kilgore was running even at best. A Republican involved in the decision to hold the event said the White House calculation was, "Win or lose, he's to get blamed, so why not?"

Indeed, Bush's sinking poll ratings created what Republicans delicately called an "environmental problem" for Kilgore. One Republican strategist said the "headwinds" of Bush's problems, including chaos in Iraq and the indictment of a close aide, were compounded by "flank winds" of tawdry headlines about Republicans in Congress. Kilgore, with his light schedule and mountain twang, was friendly and earnest, but short on what consultants call "candidate skills." A column in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Sunday said his voice sounded "like Gomer Pyle on helium." The Associated Press called the race for Kaine at 9:06 p.m. ET, just two hours after the polls closed. Kilgore conceded about 90 minutes later, saying: "At the end of the day, I take heart in what the Bible says and how it applies to me, my favorite scripture: 'I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, and I have kept the faith.' Thank you, Virginia."

Winners and Lessons

A huge winner is Governor Warner, who by state law cannot seek a second consecutive term and plans to run for President. Turning to Warner Kaine said during his acceptance speech: "May I just say: I'm looking forward to standing with you at your next victory party." Kaine offered himself as Warner's heir apparent, and the two will be seen as political alchemists who can turn conservative and rural voters into Democrats. Analysts said Kilgore hurt himself with some of his own supporters with a heavily negative television ad that invoked Hitler in playing up Kaine's resistance to the death penalty. Robert F. Denton, a political scientist at Virginia Tech, said older Republicans were turned off by the intensity and quantity of the Kilgore attacks: "The grayer their hair, the madder they were at Kilgore."

For Republicans, the night offered two harsh lessons. One is that Virginia could be a growing crack in the party's hold on the South: Last fall, Sen. John F. Kerry carried the state's largest locality, Fairfax County, becoming the first Democratic presidential candidate to do so since Lyndon B. Johnson beat Barry Goldwater there in 1964. And Kaine made inroads in the exurbs, the growing, family-friendly communities beyond of suburbs that were a linchpin of Karl Rove's strategy for Bush's reelection.

Secondly, Republicans are hobbled as they head into 2006. "The status quo nationally is bad for Republicans—they need to break the psychology that '06 is going to be a very bad year," said political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. "They needed some good news, and they didn't get it." The results fueled Democratic hopes for a takeover of one or both houses of Congress, although the small number of races in play makes Democratic strategists doubt that is feasible. The off-year governors' races in Virginia and New Jersey tend to be overstated as omens for the following midterm elections, and Bush's aides recognize he is in for a drubbing by the pundits. Republicans point out that the party in the White House has not won a Virginia governor's race since 1973, and that they still hold a majority of governorships nationwide (currently 28-22).

Republicans assert that Kaine's emphasis on his faith provided "cover" on the hot-button issues of the death penalty and abortion. Christopher J. LaCivita, a consultant to the Republican Governors Association and friend of Kilgore's, thundered: "The Democrat Party's new strategy of embracing people who practice faith will be exposed for what it is—a ruse." But Kaine, chatting with TIME as voting wound down, said his experience as a missionary was what made him a public servant—as a civil rights lawyer, later as Richmond Mayor and currently as Virginia Lieutenant Governor. "Some Democrats are reluctant to talk about their faith because there's a New Testament tradition of being wary about public expressions of piety," he said. "We share so much about ourselves in this line of work. There's nothing secret about my life; I've been under a microscope. Why wouldn't I talk about the thing that motivates me to do what I do?" David Eichenbaum said it doesn't even have to be purely religious: In focus groups, exurban and rural voters reacted well as long as they knew a candidate had core values.

In politics, there's nothing more popular than an idea that has just produced a win. Democrats who buy the Kaine strategy can hope that his sprint to the statehouse also points a path to the White House.