Virginia Politics, Washington-Style (Washington Post op-ed)

Washington PostThe Washington Post
Virginia Politics, Washington-Style; And the Results Are Anything but Pretty

By Stephen J. Farnsworth
Washington Post (Outlook)

What a difference 2005 makes.

Four years ago, the Virginia gubernatorial contest was all about tax cuts. Democrat Mark Warner and Republican Mark Earley criss-crossed the commonwealth talking soberly about the consequences of Gov. Jim Gilmore’s car tax repeal and how to restore the state’s financial health.

This year? Forget the earnest policy discussions of the Old Dominion’s past. From cartoon images of politicians gobbling tax dollars to claims that the other side won’t tell the truth about education, the death penalty or abortion, the central message each campaign is sending is that the other candidate is a liar, or just short of it. And they’re doing it with nasty advertising wars.

Call it the Washington-ization of Virginia politics. It’s vitriolic, it’s partisan, and it’s not going away. And that means that whoever wins the governor’s race on Nov. 8, he’s likely to face a combative tenure as the political environment in Richmond becomes increasingly scorched-earth.

Nor does there seem to be any chance of damping the fire. At an Oct. 9 debate between the major gubernatorial candidates, Republican and former attorney general Jerry Kilgore and Democratic Lieutenant Governor Tim Kaine, moderator Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia urged an end to the arms race. He asked the candidates to promise that they would limit attack advertising to no more than half of their messages for the rest of the campaign. Kaine agreed, but Kilgore did not. A few days later, as a new round of gunshots rang out from his camp, Virginians learned why.

In separate Kilgore ads, a police officer’s widow and a man whose son was murdered argue that Kaine can’t be trusted to carry out capital punishment sentences if he becomes governor. The grief-stricken father goes even further in his charges against Kaine, a Catholic who personally opposes the death penalty and defended the man convicted of murdering the son. “Tim Kaine says that Adolf Hitler doesn’t qualify for the death penalty,” he says. (Kaine was on the air almost immediately with response ads saying he would execute convicted killers because that is the law. Kilgore followed a few days later with a response to the response).

Nazi references may be common in Washington — in recent months, U.S. senators including Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin and Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican, have traded Hitler comparisons over various federal and administration policies — but gubernatorial campaigns in Virginia used to have higher standards. The 2001 race and the one before that were primarily statewide debates on tax policy. In 1993, candidates talked about whether to abolish parole.

Kaine has used emotionally oriented attack ads as well, relying on children to make his case that a Kilgore administration would gut education. At the end of one ad, an elementary school student dares Kilgore to “pick on someone your own size.”

The frustrating thing is that there is no shortage of issues for the candidates to talk about. Statewide polls show that voters are deeply concerned about education, health care and jobs. Northern Virginians know how traffic bottlenecks choke the region at all hours and how rapid growth is continuing to create immense pressures for new schools, roads, mass transit projects and other costly government services. Traffic in Hampton Roads is no picnic, either. Elsewhere, economic decline is a painful fact of life, as many of the mining, textile and manufacturing jobs that once kept more rural areas humming are no more.

Kaine and Kilgore have paid some lip service to these issues, of course. Both have talked, for instance, about reducing congestion in Northern Virginia. But neither has an effective plan for raising the vast sums needed to pay for their highway and mass transit proposals. In the absence of concrete ideas, their attack ads have overshadowed all their other comments.

Attack ads are effective because they’re memorable. But the nastiness has negative consequences, too. Harsh personal attacks can hurt voter turnout — already a problem in Virginia’s odd-year elections — as many voters decide that neither major-party candidate deserves to win. Low turnout elections empower the extremes of both parties, because moderates are the quickest to become disgusted — and to stay home on Election Day. And the trench warfare of campaigns does little to encourage the survivors to work together once it’s time to govern.

Like Washington, Richmond has become an armed camp of permanent campaigns, and the candidates for governor aren’t the only ones on the battlefield. Many of the struggles have been intramural, as conservative Republicans take aim at moderates. Last fall, after the legislature finally passed Gov. Mark Warner’s controversial plan for statewide tax reform, Grover Norquist, the prominent Washington anti-tax activist, urged Virginia Republicans to toss out the 15 state senators and 19 delegates who sided at least once with Democrat Warner during the battle. Even some prominent Republican conservatives wished that Norquist and his “Least Wanted” posters had stayed on K Street.

In June, four House of Delegates members from Northern Virginia faced anti-tax GOP primary challenges after helping pass Warner’s plan. Three of the four — Joe May of Loudoun, Bobby Orrock of Spotsylvania and Harry Parrish of Manassas — managed to win renomination. But the fourth, Gary Reese of Fairfax, who at different times voted both for and against the plan, lost by a nearly 2-to-1 margin.

Two years earlier, GOP activists had set their sights on moderate Senate Republicans. Russell Potts of Winchester was a key target. He narrowly escaped — winning renomination by just over 100 votes. Now he’s getting even with those conservatives, running for governor as an independent and attacking Kilgore at every opportunity.

While anti-tax activists have lost most of the battles so far, they’re likely to end up winning the war for the soul of the state’s GOP. Conservatives usually win open-seat primaries in Virginia. Some moderate incumbents may choose to retire rather than face another round of combat. If so, there may be a significant change in the composition of the Senate’s Republican majority as early as 2007.

For Democrat Kaine, the growing Washington-ization of Virginia politics means that as governor, he would face an uphill battle with the legislature. He’d unlikely be able to repeat Warner’s bipartisan budgetary accomplishments, as Republicans — particularly in the House — are pushed ever more rightward. And his education-oriented agenda — including making pre-kindergarten available to all who want to enroll their children — would make little progress without some GOP support in the more polarized House.

Of course, unified partisan control of both the executive and legislative branches doesn’t guarantee a smoothly functioning administration. Just look at Washington. Less than a year after his reelection, President Bush’s most significant obstacles are being erected by Republican senators who reject his growing budget deficits, the treatment of military prisoners and even his latest Supreme Court nomination.

Without a “war on terrorism” to generate unity at the state level, a Gov. Kilgore may have even more problems than Bush is now having with fellow Republicans. After all, those same GOP moderates who defied Gilmore on the car tax in the 1990s and sided with Warner last year still control the Virginia Senate. If Kilgore pushes for more tax cuts, these moderates may dismiss his plans as quickly as they rejected Gilmore’s.

The central public policy question of our age is what level of government programs citizens are willing to support. Washington can finesse the answer with budget deficits that give voters more than they are paying for (at least in the short term), but Virginia law requires a balanced state budget.
Next January, the focus in Richmond may once again be on popular short-term goodies like tax cuts at the expense of long-term public needs, just as is the case all too often 100 miles further north on Interstate 95.