Virginia voters head to the polls today, yet the state’s marquee race offers little more than entertaining politics. Down-ticket races run at full bore: a banner for lieutenant governor candidate Sean Connaughton graces a skyscraper along Interstate 95, yard signs proliferate along roadways, and candidates paper windshields in church parking lots. But to the major gubernatorial candidates, tomorrow’s just another Tuesday between now and November.
Sure, Republican Jerry Kilgore has a Republican challenger, but George Fitch, conservative mayor of Warrenton, is so unthreatening that even the Washington Post describes his opposition as “token.” At most, the primary will occasion an opportunity to spin Kilgore’s margin of victory over Fitch. Haggling over whether Kilgore would be “wounded” by capturing 75%, 80%, or 90% is a parlor game about which only the super-wonks get excited. “This is all about advancing to the next round,” Kilgore spokesman Tucker Martin said yesterday. “They know how strong Jerry Kilgore is.”
No matter how Kilgore fares tomorrow, he still faces Lieutenant Governor Tim Kaine, who has even the most ardent liberals wishing Gov. Mark Warner could run for a second term. Apparently desperate for a break, a state Democratic leader is openly urging Democrats to vote for Fitch in the open primary to clear the way for Tim Kaine in the general. With the left divided over Kaine’s strategy and message, an outright Kilgore loss would be the only way Kaine could consider today’s primary a victory.
But a boring primary doesn’t mean that the entire race is a snooze. The Kaine campaign is so concerned about drumming up excitement for their guy that they’re raising the Swift Boat bogeyman with advertising, a new website titled “It Stops in Virginia,” and fundraising letters. Since some consultants who helped produce the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads last fall worked on an anti-Kaine ad, “This team of operatives wins races through character assassination,” Tom Daschle wrote on “It Stops in Virginia.” Never mind the ads are oriented around such toxic accusations as property tax hikes.
As entertaining as forced Democratic outrage can be, it can’t compare with a classic RINO (Republican In Name Only) spectacle. You know the scene if you follow senior senators from Ohio or Arizona: because he rejects party orthodoxy on, well, everything he’s touted as a commonsensical moderate — a “maverick,” even.
H. Russell Potts, state senator from the 27th district of Virginia, is the Old Dominion’s most prominent RINO these days. Though running as an independent to avoid Fitch’s fate, Potts still considers himself a Republican.
You wouldn’t know it from his positions. In fact, his website is mum on issues besides a message supporters can send to friends: “As an Independent Republican, [Potts] will not be beholden to party politics and will be uniquely able to make decisions as Governor because they are right, not because they are politically popular.”
What unpopular decisions? Like his Democratic opponent, Potts was a vociferous supporter of last year’s controversial tax hike that split Virginia Republicans. Potts is the tax-increasing Republican in this race — he also wants to reinstate the hated car tax — and he’s proud of it. To Potts, pro-life and anti-tax conservatives represent the “extremist wing of the Republican Party.”
He’s such a straight-talking maverick that he told a class of college students earlier this month that if he wins, “Every single Virginian is going to have to pay. … It’s going to cost you.” Inspiring, no? Touting a regional sales tax hike in 2002, Potts told the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce that since Virginia is the twelfth wealthiest state in the nation, “it is time we started acting like it.” Potts continued, “I think we can afford 25 cents a day.”
Potts’s maverick personality extends even to his manners. When a Clarke County resident’s January letter to the editor in the Winchester Star criticized Potts, Potts wrote the man at home on official letterhead, calling him “gutless, spineless” and a “coward”: “No, no aides or advisors said anything to me about my comments because they know I am my own man — not some coward like you.”
Thanks to the media’s affection for liberal Republicans, Virginians can count on a steady stream of unintentional comedy this summer and fall. And enjoying Potts carries little risk to conservatives. He had a tough enough time winning from his home town in 2003, squeaking through the primary by 106 votes. The commonwealth should prove more difficult. The most recent SurveyUSA poll puts Potts at 5%. The Kaine and Kilgore campaigns each predict Potts will “rob” votes from their opponent, but Potts’s economic and social liberalism will likely only draw voters from Kaine’s base.
No matter whose November Potts spoils, he supplies the campaign’s laugh track.
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