Thursday, November 23, 2006

Identity Crisis

Over the past two election cycles, we've seen two Democrats win upset victories in statewide campaigns. But, I think few will disagree that George Allen lost more than Jim Webb won, or that if Mark Warner had been an unpopular Governor, Jerry Kilgore would be our Governor today.

Campaigns are marked, and most voters are disgusted by, efforts to portray one's opponent as something or another. 2005 saw a a race between a liberal gun hating illegal alien loving lawyer who spent all his days trying to get people off death row and a cowardly man who hated fiscal responsibility, wants our kids to be idiots and was afraid to show his face in public. Or so the candidates would have liked you to believe.

But there was an interesting similarity between the two candidates. As a staffer for the Democrats, I contacted about 50,000 voters in Albemarle and across the state. I can probably count on one hand the number of them who didn't hear Mark Warner's name. The campaign plan was quite simple... Tim Kaine = Mark Warner.

But early in the campaign came an astounding claim from Jerry Kilgore:
"I'm more like Mark Warner than Tim Kaine will ever be."

Given Kilgore was a vocal opponent of the crowning achievement of Warner's administration, the voters quickly saw through this line of bullshit, and it was quickly abandoned. Face with no appealing Virgnia Republican to portray himself as a successor to, Kilgore was forced to look to the national stage for a role model. Thus, the stage was set. Kaine/Warner vs. Kilgore/Bush (to think, this was back in a time when Republican candidates weren't literally running away from the President).

So, two candidates were essentially running with and running against a candidate who wasn't even in the race. In the end, Mark Warner's incredible popularity was one of the biggest forces in catapulting Tim Kaine into the governor's office.

Same thing happened in 2006. If George Allen hadn't acted like a total idiot, or if George Bush has been slightly less toxic on November 7th, Allen would have been re-elected.

Similarly, the biggest themes in the midterm elections were not staying the course, not robbing the poor to pay the rich and not being corrupt. In other words, not being like Congressional Republicans. Republcians and pundits loved to point out that Democrats didn't have real plans for these issues, hadn't accomplished much in the minority, etc., while ignoring the fact that they had no power to attack these problems while in the minority, and even less so with such a toxic leadership. But, by and large, the voters said anything but the current Congress, and now we have a Democratic congress by virtue of the Republicans being so horrible.

We can look to the last couple of Presidential elections for more example. As the challenger, John Kerry had to run against Bush. He could have run a better campaign, and there was a lot of resentment against Bush at the time, but the national attitude wasn't completely opposed to the President. Had the election been held six months later, or at any point since then, Kerry would have won. If he had campaigned differently, he may have won. But, the election was a referendum on the President, as any Presidential re-election campaign is, and Kerry failed to fully convince the public (or at least enough Ohioans) that he was different enough from Bush.

2000 provides another example. Al Gore found himself in a similar situation as Tim Kaine. While Bill Clinton had been through a very negative ordeal that was quite toxic for the country and for his office, he was still very popular amongst the American public, and most people blamed the Republican Congress for politicizing Clinton's sex life. Despite Clinton's popularity, Gore seemed to distance himself from him. Unlike 2005 and 2006, when Mark Warner stumped hard for Kaine and Webb, we barely saw a peep from Clinton in 2000. Gore was the natural heir to Clinton's legacy, but he failed to grab that and run with it. He still nearly won, but what would the result have been if Clinton had spent an extra week or two in Florida?

So, what's a politician to do? Some are successful at forging their public identity before they get elected. It's once they become elected that they have a chance to forge their own identity. Warner had never been an elected official when he took office, and came out wildly popular. Kaine hasn't been in a year yet, and hasn't achieved the level of success of Warner, even though Virginians do generally approve of the job he's doing. If Kaine is able to run a successful administration, look for the next Democratic nominee to run a campaign to follow in his footsteps. Maybe even to "keep Virginia moving forward." If Kaine is unpopular in 2009, look for the Democratic nominee to want to forge a new direction, and the Republican nominee to highlight their opposition to the Kaine administration. Then come 2010, Kaine's legacy will be fairly complete, and the new Governor will have a chance to make their own, only to be judged in 2013.

Of course there's always the chance that someone who already has a solid identity may run, like Warner, Allen, Gilmore, etc., which would change the texture of the race considerably, making it more about one or both of the candidates, and not the incumbent. (On a side note, a gubernatorial race between Jim Gilmore and Mark Warner would thrill me to no end).

And all this is not to downplay the importance of the candidates themselves. Voters were engaging in a referendum on Warner in 2005, but if Tim Kaine and his staffers hadn't worked their asses off to make it clear that Tim was the real successor to Warner, it would have made it a lot more difficult to win the race. But while Kaine worked to clearly define himself, it was in large part an attempt to paint himself as the candidate most like Mark Warner.


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