As this year’s Virginia gubernatorial election approached, Republican governors from around the country stormed into the state to make the case for their party’s nominee, right-winger Jerry Kilgore. “Everyone is watching,” Idaho’s Governor Dirk Kempthorne told the crowd at a fundraiser for Kilgore. “They are watching Virginia…to see whether conservatism is still on the march.” On November 8 the voters of the state that has not backed a Democrat for President since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 gave Kempthorne and his fellow conservatives an answer: They elected Democrat Tim Kaine, derided for months by Republicans in an expensive, often vicious campaign as “the most liberal candidate who’s ever run for governor in the Commonwealth of Virginia’s history.” Kaine was never quite the liberal his opponents claimed, but he has been an honest supporter of moves to increase taxes to fund education, transportation and environmental programs; a thoughtful critic of the death penalty; and a consistent proponent of racial justice in a state that is barely a generation away from the days of “massive resistance” to integration.
Kaine’s backers will tell you that his win had a lot to do with the man and his campaign, as well as a ham-handed attempt by the Republicans to suggest that his discomfort with capital punishment meant that he would have gone easy on Adolf Hitler. But the candidate also benefited from a collapse of confidence in the Bush Administration and its Congressional allies. In Virginia, where a substantial portion of the electorate lives in the Washington suburbs, the daily stories of indictments, scandals, missteps and neglect–particularly of the victims of Hurricane Katrina–have taken their toll on the President’s popularity. The state that gave Bush a solid 54 percent of the vote last year now gives him only a 41 percent approval rating. He’s even less popular in the other state that held a gubernatorial election, New Jersey, where Bush’s approval rating–34 percent–was so dismal that the Democratic candidate, Senator Jon Corzine, re-energized a flagging campaign by running TV ads that linked his Republican opponent to Bush. In what was once expected to be a close contest, Corzine won by ten points.
It’s always a little dangerous to extrapolate from the results of off-year elections. But Democrats were crowing about their wins in the gubernatorial races this year and looking forward enthusiastically to next year’s thirty-six statehouse contests. Even Republicans were acknowledging that the old Bush magic seemed to be fading. Kilgore actually avoided appearing with Bush at one of the President’s two pre-election appearances in Virginia, and New Jersey Republicans pointedly asked the man they used to refer to as the campaigner-in-chief to stay out of their state, as did California Republicans, who were struggling to pass referendums designed to enhance Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s authority while undermining legislative Democrats.
Nowhere was the President’s toxicity more potent than in Minnesota, where St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly, a Democrat who broke ranks to back Bush in 2004, was swept from office by fellow Democrat Chris Coleman, who made it clear throughout the campaign that he was not a Bush man. Larry Jacobs, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, told reporters that the St. Paul vote is “Exhibit A” for the case that Bush’s declining popularity is doing damage to old allies. In neighboring Minneapolis progressive Mayor R.T. Rybak was easily re-elected on a day when Democrats won most big-city mayoral contests.
Even where a Republican mayor prevailed, in New York City, he did so by running to the left not just of Bush but of many national Democrats: Incumbent Mike Bloomberg swept to re-election in the Big Apple after a campaign in which he courted labor unions, advocated affordable housing and denounced the Supreme Court nomination of John Roberts–backed by half the Senate’s Democrats–because Roberts was insufficiently prochoice.
Not all the news was good for progressives. San Diego City Council member Donna Frye’s two-year campaign to clean up the scandal-plagued politics of that city fell short, as she lost to a Republican who was backed by the city’s business elites. In Ohio, infighting among Democrats doomed a package of four constitutional amendments that would have reformed the politics of a state where one-party dominance by the Republicans has created what Democratic Representative Sherrod Brown, an enthusiastic backer of the reform proposals, accurately describes as “a culture of corruption.” And in Texas voters passed another of those noxious anti-gay marriage referendums. In Maine, however, voters overwhelmingly rejected an attempt to scrap that state’s new gay rights law.
The most encouraging referendum result of all came from Colorado, where voters endorsed a five-year suspension of the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR, a “starve government” gimmick that placed severe limits on the ability of the state to raise and spend the resources needed to maintain quality schools and public services. Denver’s Rocky Mountain News got it right in a postelection editorial that declared the big losers in the vote were “(anti-tax firebrands) Grover Norquist, Dick Armey and other national leaders in the ‘drown government in a bathtub’ movement who focused their efforts on making Colorado’s TABOR a model of fiscal restraint.” Like the results from Virginia, New Jersey and elsewhere, the vote from the once-red state of Colorado sends a hopeful signal that despite the best efforts of Karl Rove and his compatriots, it does not appear that conservatism is “still on the march.”