The last time Democrats elected a new president who had not been a governor was in 1960, when U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy was the party's nominee and the narrow victor of a contest with Republican Richard Nixon. And two of the four Republican presidents since then were present or former governors, as well. So it makes at least a measure of sense to argue that the place to prospect for a 2008 Democratic nominee is in the states rather than Washington.
And, after Tuesday's election in Virginia, Democrats have a new statehouse star. No, it's not Tim Kaine, the Democrat who won a surprisingly easy victory over Republican Jerry Kilgore in the only southern state to hold a gubernatorial contest this fall. What matters as regards national politics is the fact that Kaine will be replacing a fellow Democrat, Mark Warner.
Warner has been boomed as a presidential prospect for some time now, and even before Tuesday's voting there were strong indications that the moderate Virginian was taking steps to enter the race for the party's 2008 nomination.
But Tuesday's off-year election vote in Virginia gives Warner a major boost.
In many senses, Kaine's victory was really Warner's win.
Kaine ran on a promise to carry on where Warner, whose approval ratings are in the high sixties, leaves off.
Warner appeared in almost as many of Kaine's television commercials as did the candidate himself.
And in the final days of the campaign, Warner and Kaine barnstormed across the state's southern counties, where Warner's combination of downhome appeals to sportsmen and NASCAR racing fans and a little bit of economic populism went a long way toward overcoming the instinct of cultural conservatives to vote for the Republican.
The strategy of linking Kaine with Warner worked in large part because Warner has been such a successful governor.
The Warner model of increasing taxes to pay for education and infrastructure improvements, defending the right to choose and promoting racial harmony, and creating economic-development initiatives for hard-hit regions has generally worked well for Virginia. No, the southern state has not become a bastion of progressivism, and there are still plenty of reasons to question whether Warner is the right man to put some spine back into the Democratic column.
But there is no question that Warner can point to some impressive accomplishments in Virginia. A state that had a history of going from fiscal crisis to fiscal crisis now has a surplus and some of the best bond ratings in the country. As such, Democrat Kaine's promise to carry on was a lot more appealing than Republican Kilgore's promise of a return to "no-more-taxes" dogma and financial instability.
Against a Democratic field that is likely to be thick with senators -- New York's Hillary Clinton, Indiana's Evan Bayh, Delaware's Joe Biden, Wisconsin's Russ Feingold, Massachusetts' John Kerry, the 2004 nominee, and his running mate from that year, former North Carolina Senator John Edwards -- Warner's argument that the party needs a nominee with executive experience could have significant appeal. And he will have a much easier time directing the attention of voters toward Virginia, now that Kaine will be sitting in the governor's chair.
With Kaine in charge of Virginia, Warner will have several advantages if he chooses to seek the party's nomination in 2008. First, in a state where the governor is not allowed to succeed himself, Kaine's win is the next best vindication for Warner to a reelection of his own. Also, with a Democrat in charge of Virginia, Warner can hit the presidential campaign trail without fear of having a homestate rival poking at him -- as John Kerry did in 2004, when the Republican governor of the Bay State, Mitt Romney, was dispatched by GOP managers to batter the Democratic presidential nominee.
With Jimmy Carter, the former governor of a southern state, and Bill Clinton, the sitting governor of a southern state,, Democrats were able to defeat Republican presidents in 1976 and 1992, respectively. Kaine's win in Virginia positions Warner to advance the claim that Democrats need to turn once more to a statehouse veteran if they want to secure the White House.
Watch for him to do just that in the coming months.