WASHINGTON -- House Speaker Dennis Hastert and the House Republican campaign chairman, Rep. Tom Reynolds, were given a sobering warning last week by senior GOP political operatives. They were told that on Tuesday, Nov. 8, the Democrats were sure to win the governorship of Virginia. After that, the warning continued, the watchword within the House majority would be: Every man for himself!
The victory of Democrat Tim Kaine over Republican Jerry Kilgore was the only contest in scattered off-year elections that was carefully monitored on Capitol Hill. For a liberal Virginian to win a Southern red state signaled that cherished Republican majorities in both House and Senate, plus all the perquisites they entail, could be lost in 2006. Eyeing the Democratic landslide in suburban northern Virginia just over the Potomac from Washington that gave Lt. Gov. Kaine the governorship, Republicans in Congress envision their own doom.
The antidote to avoid that fate is to keep as far away from President Bush as possible, a lesson underlined by the president's failed election rescue mission for former state Attorney General Kilgore. The consequences may be profound. As his approval rating dipped, Bush increasingly has been treated in Congress as a lame duck. Tuesday's Virginia outcome increases the propensity of Republican senators and House members not only to avoid their president on the campaign trail but also to ignore his legislative proposals.
Tuesday's off-year election outcomes do not approximate the clear warning signal given Democrats 12 years ago when the 1993 flip from Democrat to Republican for governor of Virginia and New Jersey and mayor of New York presaged the 1994 GOP landslide. This year's expected Democratic win in New Jersey and retention of a nominal Republican in New York's City Hall did not constitute a national sea change.
The political message read on Capitol Hill came strictly from the Virginia governor's race. How to explain that Democratic victory in a red state where both U.S. senators, eight out of 11 House members and comfortable margins in both houses of the legislature are Republican, and Tuesday Republicans won for lieutenant governor and apparently attorney general?
They blame Kilgore's defeat on the dip of Bush's popularity in Virginia below 50 percent. After avoiding the president on Bush's recent visit to Norfolk, a desperate Kilgore asked for his eleventh hour help. The Monday night appearance in Richmond by a dispirited and exhausted Bush, returning from his difficult Latin America trip, was a dud.
But reasons for the second straight Democratic triumph for governor of Virginia go beyond Bush fatigue. "I'm not going to blame the president," Jim Gilmore, the last Republican elected to the governorship and former national party chairman, told me on election night after Kaine's victory was apparent. He added: "We have to stand up for the taxpayer to present a firm and consistent message."
Gilmore was elected in 1997 when Democrats opposed his promised repeal of the hated car tax. Eight years later, Democrats transmuted Gov. Mark Warner's tax increase by claiming the mantle of fiscal responsibility thanks to Republican waffling on taxes. Kilgore epitomized what was wrong with the Virginia Republicans by sounding an uncertain trumpet on taxes and abortion.
There was no reason for Republican joy elsewhere on Tuesday. The party's big win was the re-election landslide in New York City of Michael Bloomberg, who governs largely as a Democrat. The easy victory for governor of New Jersey of a flawed candidate, Sen. Jon Corzine, represented the futility of relying on self-financed candidate Douglas Forrester, who was despised by social conservatives. In California, the defeat of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's ballot issues represented a lost opportunity nationally to curb labor union political power.
Bush gets the blame. In the days immediately preceding Tuesday's elections, Republican committee chairmen in Congress grew increasingly contemptuous of their president. Sen. Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, dismissed Bush's Social Security plan as something to be shelved until after the 2008 presidential election. Rep. Joe Barton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, opposed Bush's requested $7 billion to fight bird flu. Thanks to Virginia, the president can expect more of the same.