The front-page headline of this piece in the Washington Times is “Bush ‘sank’ GOP in Virginia.” However the article itself tends to refute this notion. It points out that Bush’s approval rating in Virginia is 51 percent — not great, and certainly not enough to provide coat-tails, but hardly low enough to sink the party. The main evidence the Times cites in support of its headline is a quotation from a Republican delegate in Fairfax County (just outside of Washington, D.C.) who narrowly won his race. Bush may have hurt the party in Northern Virginia, but if so that’s because this part of the state has become quite liberal. Bush is popular enough in the rest of the state that Kilgore could have won had the Democratic administration in Richmond been less popular.
The Times also suggests that Kaine gained after President Bush’s last minute visit to the state on Kilgore’s behalf. It relies on a statement by liberal pundit Mark Rozell, who goes on to assert that it was a bad year to be running as a Republican in Virginia (Rozell ignores both Republican success in other races and any comparison between 2005 and 2001). But internal polling by the Kaine campaign had him up by his margin of victory about a week before the Bush visit. And polling by Survey USA does not support the view that Kilgore lost ground in the period after the Bush visit.
I have attributed Kaine’s victory to the popularity of Gov. Mark Warner. The most plausible counter-thesis is not Bush’s visit or standing, but the nature of the Kilgore campaign. Kilgore ran some ads that backfired. Borrowing a page from Chuck Schumer, he argued that Kaine would not enforce the death penalty because of his religious beliefs. Kaine countered with a one-two punch, trumpeting his faith but insisting that he would follow the law. Our friend Todd Zywicki has told me he sensed right then that Kaine would win (even though he trailed slightly in the polls at that time). Similarly, my source close to the Kaine campaign said at the time that this was a big break for Kaine.
My sense is that the Kilgore campaign did cost the candidate votes, but not enough to account fully for the 5 to 6 percentage point margin. It’s true that the lower part of the ticket bridged that gap, but the Dems in those races were not as closely associated with Warner as was Kaine, the Lt. Governor. Keep in mind too that Warner’s popularity forced Kilgore into an aggressive (and ultimately overly-aggressive) campaign, in which he desperately tried to paint Kaine as a liberal. It’s much easier to run a “smart” campaign when the fundamentals are in your favor. And the best fundamental to have in your favor in a state race is a popular incumbent governor with whom you are closely associated.