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Sound and Fury

Yesterday's elections in Virginia and New Jersey signify almost nothing.

6:45 AM, Nov 9, 2005 • By FRED BARNES
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JERRY KILGORE lacked the three things needed for a Republican to be elected governor in Virginia. In order of importance, they are: a dynamic campaign, an issue, and a president who's not a burden. So he lost to Democratic Tim Kaine yesterday in an election that Democrats will claim is more meaningful that it really is. Democrats captured the governor's office in New Jersey, too, but that barely rises to the level of talking point.

Kilgore, the ex-state attorney general, is a nice man with deeply conservative views. He is a protégé of Republican Senator George Allen. But his campaign, except for two ads denouncing Kaine for opposing the death penalty, was "nasty and dull." That's how Larry Sabato, the University of Virginia professor and expert on Virginia politics, described both the Kilgore and Kaine campaigns. Sabato was quite right.

Abortion wasn't a big issue, but Kilgore insisted he was pro-life. From time to time, Kaine said he was too. But Kaine said he would fight to protect a woman's right to have an abortion even if the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion nationally. Kilgore wouldn't say what he'd do if Roe were overturned, irritating many conservatives.

To win the Virginia governorship, a Republican usually needs an issue that rallies conservatives. In 1993, Allen was elected by promising to end the frequently abused system of parole. Four years later, Jim Gilmore won by vowing to eliminate the regressive car tax. Kilgore tried to make the death penalty an overriding issue, but it didn't click. Nor did his attacks on illegal immigration.

It was an election without a paramount issue. This helped Kaine, who spent most of his time denying that he is a liberal. He was, though, as Richmond mayor. He was less liberal as lieutenant governor to outgoing Democratic Gov. Mark Warner. In his campaign, Kaine had no issues worth mentioning. He simply declared himself a clone of Warner, who is enormously popular, despite the fact that he promised never to raise taxes--and then raised them.

All of which leads to the Bush factor. There was one. For the past seven elections in Virginia, voters have elected a governor from the party that doesn't hold the White House. Even if the president is popular, as Ronald Reagan was in 1981, he can't help his party's candidate much. But he can hurt the candidate if he's even slightly unpopular, as Bush is today in Virginia. Bush was a mild drag on the Republican ticket, especially in populous northern Virginia, where Kilgore did poorly.

Was Bush a huge factor in the race? Not at all. The election wasn't a referendum on his presidency. But Bush's current troubles meant that Republicans weren't in a good mood. One Republican official said the floor dropped out of the party's conservative base when Bush nominated Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court.

Had the election been held six months ago, Bush wouldn't have hurt Kilgore. And Kaine probably would have won anyway. Nonetheless, national Democrats are bound to insist that Bush was decisively rejected in Virginia. Not true. He was only gently rebuked.

Sabato said the important element of the race was the Warner versus Allen subtext. Warner stumped widely for Kaine. Allen campaigned extensively for Kilgore. Since both are likely candidates for president in 2008, this was a triumph of Warner over Allen, according to Sabato. If so, it was a triumph of microscopic proportions.

One aspect of the Kaine campaign should encourage voters. In 2001, Warner spent millions from his personal fortune pretending to be someone he wasn't. He's from urban Alexandria, but traveled with a bluegrass band, sponsored a NASCAR race car, and tried to bond with hunters and rural voters. Kaine ran a conventional Democratic campaign, emphasizing minorities, cities and inner suburbs. His margin of victory was roughly the same as Warner's. So the lesson was: you might have to fake your ideology, but you don't need to fake who you are.

THE NEW JERSEY RACE had only two interesting elements. One was the TV ad that Republican Doug Forrester ran quoting the ex-wife of Democrat John Corzine--he dumped her after 30 or so years of marriage--as saying she wouldn't vote for him. Corzine, spending freely from his personal wealth of $300 million, now contemplates the presidency.

That's the second item of interest in the race. Corzine is already a senator, though hardly an influential one. Why else would he want to be governor of New Jersey except to use it as a launching pad for a presidential bid? I can't think of a single other reason.

New Jersey is a blue state, Virginia a red state. But both had Democratic governors coming into yesterday's election. Both will continue to. Thus, there was no change, no earthquake, no reordering of the political universe. Ignore anyone who tells you otherwise.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.