The Magazine

Bush's Off-year Election

Virginia's gubernatorial race is a test of the president's popularity.

Oct 24, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 06 • By FRED BARNES
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So long as no issue plays a dominant role in the campaign, Kaine has the advantage. The Kilgore campaign knows this and has responded by concentrating on two issues, the death penalty and illegal immigration. As a former lawyer for death-row convicts, Kaine is highly vulnerable on capital punishment. "There's no great debate on it in Virginia," says Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia. "It's taken for granted." Kilgore says the death penalty is "a 75 percent issue"--75 percent of Virginians favor it.

Kilgore began airing two powerful TV spots last week on the death penalty. One presents a father whose son and daughter-in-law were murdered by a man whom Kaine defended. Another ad features the wife of a slain policeman. Both ads dismiss Kaine's promise that, as governor and despite his Catholic faith, he would carry out the death penalty. The issue is a hot one, in rural areas especially.

Kilgore gives himself credit for discovering the illegal immigration issue, never before an important one in Virginia races. "Everywhere we went in northern Virginia, somebody brought it up," he says. "I went back to the campaign and told them." As attorney general, Kilgore ruled that illegal immigrants were not eligible for in-state college tuition. And this summer he opposed a taxpayer-financed jobs facility in Herndon, near Dulles Airport, for illegals. Kaine favored it. The immigration issue may help Kilgore reach the 45 percent threshold he needs in northern Virginia to win statewide. He's not there yet.

Does Virginia's practice of rejecting governors from the party that holds the White House really matter in 2005? Sabato says it doesn't. "It isn't a rule at all," he says. "It's happenstance." Rep. Tom Davis, a Republican from northern Virginia, says it does indeed matter. "Virginia governor's races are in a sense a mid-term election. People give their verdict on the president." Short of a sudden Bush revival, Kilgore better hope Sabato is right and Davis isn't.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.