VIRGINIA is a Republican state with a habit of electing Democratic governors. And it's really not hard to see why. Democrats run on state issues like education and roads. Democrat Tim Kaine stressed these in handily defeating Republican Jerry Kilgore in Tuesday's election for governor. Kilgore ran on what voters, at least here in Virginia, perceive as national issues: guns, immigration, gay rights, death penalty. That strategy failed.
The odd thing is that if Kilgore had been running against Kaine for the Senate, he might have won. Senate races are highly ideological in Virginia. But governor's contests are quite different: They are non-ideological. Kaine adjusted to this reality, jettisoning the liberalism of his days as mayor of Richmond. Kilgore stuck to his conservative views with only a few fudges.
Democrats are heralding the Kaine victory as predictive of Democratic triumphs nationally in 2006 and 2008. This is nonsense. What's actually predictive are presidential races. They tell us what to expect in Virginia. In the last eight statewide campaigns, the party that won the White House lost the gubernatorial election in Virginia a year later.
President Bush's election in 2000 was followed by Democrat Mark Warner's victory for governor in 2001. And Kaine's election in 2005 came on the heels of Bush's reelection in 2004. What happened after Gov. Warner won? Republicans, not Democrats, prevailed in the 2002 midterm election. There's a pattern here, but it's not a partisan one.
So it would be a mistake to read a lot into the Virginia election. True, President Bush was a slight drag on Kilgore, but only about two points worth. Since Kilgore lost 52 percent to 46 percent, Bush's role wasn't pivotal. If Virginia voters were sending a message to Washington, it was a pretty muted one.
Despite losing the governor's office, Republicans remain in a commanding position in Virginia. They won the statewide races for lieutenant governor and attorney general. And they suffered a net loss of just one seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, where all 100 seats were at stake. The Republican majority is now 59-41, not bad for a party that, according to Democrats, was decisively rejected.
There were, however, clear warning signs for Republicans. Virginia is a diverse state, with more than just urban and rural areas. There's the Appalachian southwest, Kilgore's home turf, and the Shenandoah Valley. Both are Republican strongholds along with the rest of rural Virginia. There are Democratic cities like Richmond and Portsmouth. And there are suburbs and exurbs--the toss-up areas with tens of thousands of independent voters.
No one thought Kilgore would do well in close-in suburbs of Washington like Alexandria, where I live, or neighboring Arlington, where I grew up. Once bedroom communities for young families, they are now filled with leftovers from Democratic administrations, liberal lawyers, minorities, singles and folks who've ostentatiously left their Kerry-for-President bumper stickers on their cars. Kilgore got 29 percent of the vote in Alexandria, 24 percent in Arlington.
He desperately needed to exceed 40 percent in Fairfax, the wealthy Washington suburb of one million people. Bush lost Fairfax narrowly in 2004, but still won Virginia easily, 54 percent to 45 percent. Kilgore got 38 percent in Fairfax. Even more alarming to Republicans was Kilgore's showing in the two exurban counties outside Washington, Loudoun and Prince William. They are where families now flock to buy homes. And they have been Republican hotbeds recently, but Kilgore lost both.
The way Kaine won--his style and strategy--should encourage Democrats. In 2001, Warner masqueraded as a country boy. He's a rich and sophisticated resident of trendy Alexandria. To change his image, he brought a bluegrass band with him to campaign appearances. He sponsored a NASCAR racing team. He established a relationship with hunters, leaving the impression he's a gun guy. Warner defeated Republican Mark Earley, 52 percent to 47 percent.
Kaine did none of that. He waged a conventional Democratic campaign, emphasizing cities and suburbs and college towns. He focused on reliably Democratic voters, plus independents and moderates who might come his way. He didn't worry much about the rural areas that Warner had concentrated on.
If there was fakery, it was Kaine's insistence that he's a moderate, not a liberal. In 2001, Mr. Warner made a point of differentiating himself on issues such as guns and the death penalty from the more liberal Kaine, who was running for lieutenant governor (he won). This year, however, Warner embraced Kaine and his enormous popularity. "Voting for Kaine was the re-election of Warner," said Virginia Congressman Tom Davis. "That's how they sold it."
Kaine took the unusual step for a Democrat of talking about his Catholic faith. "The Bible teaches we can accomplish great things when we work together," he said in a radio ad. He attributed his opposition to capital punishment to his deep faith. But his faith wasn't so deep, Kaine assured voters, that it would keep him from carrying out the death penalty as governor.
Kilgore assumed that portraying Kaine as a "liberal" would stigmatize him and in a Senate race it might have. Conservative wedge issues would "break his back," Kilgore aides said privately. They were wrong. Independent voters dismissed those issues (illegal immigration, the death penalty) as irrelevant in Virginia today. A Republican official active in the Kilgore campaign concluded that "calling someone a liberal doesn't mean anything today."
More often than not, campaigns are decided in favor of the candidate with the best issue. Republicans George Allen in 1993 and Jim Gilmore in 1997 won because "they had great issues" of concern to Virginians, said Larry Sabato, the leading expert on Virginia politics. With Allen, it was ending parole, with Gilmore it was elimination of the car tax. With Kilgore, it was . . . nothing at all. And so he lost.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD and author of Rebel-in-Chief, a new book on President Bush, out in January from Crown Forum. This piece originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.