Virginia rejected Jerry Kilgore and his brand of politics last night. While President Bush took responsibility for the race Monday, for better or for worse, this failure is the Kilgore campaign’s alone. Sure, Lieutenant Governor Tim Kaine ran a tight, on-message, nearly mistake-free campaign. But Kilgore is the one who entered the race up by as many as 10 points in the spring and summer; it was his to lose. Straying from articulating a strong, positive conservatism made Kilgore’s candidacy one that a presidential visit and an unprecedented Get Out the Vote effort could not salvage.
This morning, the major newspapers and television networks will associate President Bush with Jerry Kilgore’s loss. They’re right, but not because of Monday’s rally or his current troubles on the national scene. If Bush were truly such a drag on Virginia Republicans, how did the statewide down-ticket Republicans manage their victories? This isn’t a Republican problem, it’s a Kilgore problem.
Some may argue that Bush was the difference between Kilgore and the other two races because he stumped specifically for Kilgore. As I noted yesterday and Friday, the effect of such a last-minute visit would be too little, too late for Kilgore in either direction. Bush may have helped Kilgore save face in energizing the troops, but their message Monday wasn’t one likely to attract or turn away voters either way.
Furthermore, voting percentages from the 2004 presidential election and from yesterday’s election don’t support the “Bush hurt Kilgore” theory. Prince William County, west and south of D.C., voted for Bush in 2004 by 6 percent but against Kilgore by 2 percent. And solidly Bush Loudoun County, which voted for the President 56-44, voted against Kilgore by 51-46 percent.
These seeds of defeat are visible even in Kilgore’s home region, southwest Virginia. To balance out Northern Virginia growth, Kilgore needed this area to vote for him overwhelmingly. While Lee County went for Kilgore 64-35 percent and Scott County by 74-26 percent yesterday, in his 2001 race for attorney general these counties elected him by 70-30 and 81-19 percent margins, respectively.
Kilgore and Bush are both troubled these days because of their political similarities: essentially good men on a tight script and reluctant to assert their conservatism. Sure, it helps to tell conservatives that your opponent is a no-good tax-and-spend liberal. But that only momentarily excites their imagination. Republicans win when they’re conservatives grounded in solid ideas: taxes are your money, the state is not the solution, and freedom from the womb to the grave is an imperative, not a suggestion.
Kilgore seemed to remember some of these conservative notes Monday night, repeating his stance on lower taxes. Yet both Bush and Kilgore, and other Republicans, need to remember that lower taxes and “culture of life” rhetoric are not enough. Even Tim Kaine said he lowered taxes during last year’s “budget reform” — which meant that he helped lower some taxes while raising them overall. And conservatives once imagined Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist as an ally in building a “culture of life,” until the political glimmer of embryonic stem cell research proved too strong.
Conservatives will not be taken for granted, as an interest group placated with code words. Yes, John Paul II celebrated a culture of life: now what are you going to do about it? Jerry Kilgore wasn’t too sure when Tim Russert asked him that in September. The same goes for taxes. Kilgore was for lower taxes. What does that mean if you won’t commit to rolling back the tax increase?
Virginia is still red and these issues would have gained Kilgore traction. Instead, the campaign went for Kaine’s jugular on an issue Kilgore was already winning: the death penalty. The aggressive television ads featured survivors of murder victims upset with the prospect of Tim Kaine as governor because they feared he would block the death penalty. Where this strategy failed was in invoking Adolf Hitler against Kaine. The Washington Post reported last week that two-thirds of Virginians found the ads “unfair,” and even 60 percent of death penalty proponents said the ads “crossed the line.” Kilgore’s unfavorable numbers increased by 10 percent after the ads. The most conservative point that the Kilgore campaign emphasized was unnecessary and probably unfair.
Tim Kaine’s win in Virginia last night hasn’t taught us of an ideology out of favor. That ideology did not enjoy a full exposition. Rather, we’re learning that Republicans who obscure their conservatism just don’t win elections in conservative areas. The Republican Lieutenant Governor-elect, Bill Bolling, nailed it in his victory speech last night: the voters “will vote for conservative leaders who clearly communicate that vision for the future.” Indeed.