RICHMOND, VA -- The prediction that the Virginia gubernatorial race would serve as a national bellwether seemed wishful a month ago. Not anymore. National interest is growing in it now that the contest between Republican Jerry Kilgore and Democrat Tim Kaine has taken on a controversial dynamic involving faith and its role in the public square and given a glimpse of a new Democratic Southern strategy.
While Northern Virginia's urbanization lends Democrats increasing hopes for turning this red commonwealth blue, this is still a state of God and NASCAR. Former Attorney General Kilgore was the grand marshal this month of the Bristol race (just across the state line into Tennessee), at which his campaign logo was prominently featured on Mike Wallace's Chevrolet.
The uninitiated would guess this race is a Republican primary. In his kickoff public relations barrage last month, Lieutenant Governor Kaine highlighted his Catholicism and Jesuit missionary work. His stump speech quoted from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. And Kaine has criticized John Kerry in an interview with the American Prospect. "I think that John Kerry demonstrated much more comfort talking about windsurfing and hockey than he did talking about his beliefs," he said.
To appeal to a state in which Kerry lost some counties by 3 to 1, Kaine has to present all his views in a religious light. Hence he claims his record against the death penalty is grounded in his Catholicism. He touts a personal opposition to abortion, though spokeswoman Delacey Skinner said he would enforce the law. One Kaine radio commercial invokes a "faith-based opposition" to abortion and the death penalty.
When Kilgore told the Washington Examiner that this is a fresh cover for liberal activism, Kaine accused him of "a personal attack on the authenticity of my religion." Kilgore pushed harder with an ad labeling Kaine as "a liberal who's trying to hide it," citing his support for the death penalty, a gay-rights agenda, and taxes.
In an interview with TAS this month in his Richmond law office, Kilgore depicted Kaine as a liberal activist with a "lifetime of activism on liberal issues and for liberal causes, from public policy positions to legal positions he has taken." Kilgore cited his opponent's previous calls for a death penalty moratorium and briefs filed against the death penalty. He also pointed to Kaine's use of public funds to bus activists to the Million Mom March when he served as mayor of Richmond.
"I'm a conservative running as a conservative. He's a liberal masquerading as a conservative," said Kilgore.
If Kaine's faith-aggressive approach is what Howard Dean has in mind for the South when he says, "We need to talk about Christian values," it may not be enough. A Rasmussen poll last week showed Kaine trailing Kilgore by 44 to 36 percent.
Virginia is the great hope for Democrats eager to stop Southern bleeding as Republicans pick up seats from their retiring U.S. senators and governors. The national party has given $1.5 million to the Kaine campaign and pledged $2.5 million more, Skinner said. Skinner and the DNC each said Dean has no plans to campaign for Kaine. "We think that when we have strong Democratic candidates who present a Democratic message to everyone, we're confident they'll win," DNC spokesman Josh Earnest said.
The Kilgore campaign spotted Kaine workers concealing out-of-state license plates last week, and claimed they were MoveOn volunteers. Skinner said they were regular campaign workers who hadn't yet changed their plates.
The RNC also plans to "invest significant resources" in the race, said spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt. "We think Kilgore has a strong chance of winning. We feel good about this race."
Democrats enjoy the modest hope of putting Virginia in play. Inside-the-Beltway voters overwhelmingly chose Kerry, who committed resources to the state until September last year. Self-styled centrist Democratic Governor Mark Warner enjoys a robust approval rating around 60%. But Warner may be a blip in the GOP domination of the South and Virginia: Republicans hold the statehouse, and the seats in the Senate and most of the House.
The Republican Party's latest giant killer, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, is paying attention. After speaking on Kilgore's behalf at a Richmond fundraiser, he said, "I think people have always sort of looked at Virginia as a bellwether state when it comes to politics. And I think he's a great young candidate." It's safe assume that non-Virginia Republicans will follow this race as intensely as non-Virginia Democrats.
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