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And They’re Off!

As we have long contended, the open-seat Virginia Governor’s contest has all the makings of a close and competitive election (READ MORE). The June 14th party primaries reinforced that view. Here are the key results for the statewide offices, with 99 percent of precincts reporting:

Republican Party – Governor

Candidate Vote total Percentage
Jerry Kilgore 144,064 82.6
George Fitch 30,314 17.4

Democratic Party – Governor

Tim Kaine was unopposed for the Democratic nomination and did not appear on the primary ballot.

Republican Party – Lt. Governor

Candidate Vote total Percentage
Bill Bolling 98,381 57.8
Sean Connaughton 71,746 42.2

Democratic Party – Lt. Governor

Candidate Vote total Percentage
Leslie Byrne 37,797 32.9
Viola Baskerville 29,653 25.8
Chap Petersen 24,886 21.7
Phil Puckett 22,403 19.5

Republican Party – Attorney General

Candidate Vote total Percentage
Bob McDonnell 109,481 65.4
Steve Baril 57,871 34.6

Democratic Party – Attorney General

Creigh Deeds was unopposed for the Democratic nomination and did not appear on the primary ballot.

Before putting these results in perspective, let’s emphasize the obvious. These match-ups did not exactly capture the public’s imagination. The turnout was a dreadfully low 6.6 percent of registered voters–and this is with both parties counted together. It doesn’t get much worse than this. The Republicans, with considerably more contests on the ballot, secured 4.0 percent of the 4.4 million registered voters, and the Democrats attracted a mere 2.6 percent of them. So much for patriotic fervor on Flag Day! Virginia doesn’t have regular statewide primaries, and that may be part of the reason for the miniscule participation, but the candidates deserve some blame, too. From the top to the bottom of the party tickets, the contenders mainly ran vicious, irrelevant, and petty campaigns–with more negative media ads and phone calls than this observer has seen in 40 years of political activity in the Old Dominion. And that’s pitiful.

With Tim Kaine unopposed for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, Republican Jerry Kilgore needed to demonstrate strong support in his own party. Running against a virtual unknown, George Fitch, he crossed the critical 80 percent barrier, and no doubt breathed a sigh of pure relief. Still, 30,000 votes were cast against him. Among these were a few Democrats who were trying to reduce his margin of victory. More important, Kilgore saw defections on both his left and right in his own party. Some in the GOP think Kilgore is too conservative, while others believe he is too moderate. Many of these defectors likely cannot be reconciled to Kilgore before November, and they may defect to another candidate or stay home. The moderates have a logical choice in Republican state Senator Russ Potts, running as an Independent and on the fall ballot. In an extremely close race, these votes could make a difference. On the whole, though, Kilgore succeeded in getting past an unpleasant barrier to the general election with minimal trouble and expenditure.

Neither party nominee for Governor got the ticket he wanted. Many leading Democrats had hoped that state Senator Phil Puckett of Southwest Virginia would be the nominee for lieutenant governor, to strengthen the ticket in rural areas. Instead, the most liberal candidate, former Congresswoman and state Senator Leslie Byrne of Fairfax County, won. Almost all of Byrne’s voters already plan to support Tim Kaine, and Democrats are already muscular in Northern Virginia. On the other hand, Byrne might increase turnout in NoVa come November. Similarly, the Kilgore campaign was privately hoping that Prince William Board Chairman Sean Connaughton would win the lieutenant governor berth to strengthen the ticket’s appeal in Democratic-leaning NoVa and broaden the GOP’s draw among moderates. But conservative state Senator Bill Bolling of Hanover County–as far right as Byrne is left–captured the nod. Bolling is from the Richmond metro-area, where the GOP is already entrenched outside the central city. This match-up demonstrates anew what we are increasingly seeing in Virginia and around the nation. The political parties attract a wildly disproportionate share of ideologues to their nominating contests, resulting in the triumph of the left and the right to the exclusion of the center. The primaries drew a “bar-bell” shaped turnout of strong liberals and conservatives, instead of the “bell-curve” shaped turnout of a general election, where moderates and Independents are often the majority. This trend is reinforcing the political and partisan polarization so evident across the United States. (We discuss this development in a new book, DIVIDED STATES OF AMERICA: The Slash and Burn Politics of the 2004 Presidential Election)

For Virginia’s third (of three) statewide elective office, attorney general, Republicans overwhelmingly selected Virginia Beach Delegate Bob McDonnell over a Richmond lawyer, Steve Baril. Movie-star handsome and solidly conservative, McDonnell inherits the natural Republican advantage for this post, which the public sees as “chief crime fighter.” (Actually, it is primarily an administrative office.) His opponent is a rural, western state Senator, Creigh (pronounced “Cree”) Deeds of Bath County, generally considered a moderate in his party.

For all the hullabaloo involved in these primaries for lower statewide office, it is doubtful that the candidates for lieutenant governor and attorney general will matter all that much in the race for the top spot. People vote for Governor before they even think about the others, and it is possible that coattail from the gubernatorial winner will determine one or both of the lower contests. That is the norm in Virginia. Since 1981, four of the six elections for the statehouse have produced ticket-sweeps, and in the other two contests, the triumphant candidate for Governor pulled in one of his ticket-mates.

Instead of looking down, we ought to look up in analyzing the fall battle. The gubernatorial clash will be a proxy war between Democratic Governor Mark Warner and Republican U.S. Senator George Allen. Both potential 2008 presidential candidates have something to prove, to each other and to the national political community. White House hopefuls must demonstrate mastery of their home territory, and Virginia isn’t big enough for both. Either Allen or Warner will have bragging rights after November.

Kilgore will have extra help from another ranking Republican, President Bush. Four years ago, following 9/11, Bush did not make a single campaign stop for Mark Earley, theGOP nominee who lost to Mark Warner in 2001. This year Bush needs to show up, and he will. On the other hand, since 1977 the party that has won the Virginia governorship is the party out of power in the White House. Will this happen for the eighth consecutive time?

Finally, the Independent candidate, Russ Potts, will be fun to watch. Even though he still claims to be a Republican, he loves to lash out at Kilgore. In fact, Potts endorsed Fitch, Connaughton, and Baril–the three primary losers. Now hated by Republicans, Potts probably contributed to the defeat of all three. In particular, Connaughton was once considered the favorite in his contest, until he gained the backing of Potts, the Washington Post, and several leading state Senate GOP moderates. This triple whammy reminds the Crystal Ball that in politics as in life, we are most often done in by our friends and not our enemies.

A long, possibly dreary campaign stretches out for five-plus months. While the successes of Independent Governors Jesse Ventura in Minnesota, Angus King in Maine, and Lowell Weicker in Connecticut are a caution that sometimes Independents can win, Potts is less likely to become Governor than to affect the outcome. In the low to middle single digits, Potts may take more votes from Kilgore, since his “home vote” in the heavily GOP Winchester area will be subtracted from the Republican column. Yet if Potts ever catches on, he can rise, Perot-like, into the teens or even higher. At that point, Kaine might be more at risk than Kilgore. But it’s all speculation unless Potts is able to attract enough support to qualify for the debates. Most likely, he will have to demonstrate support at or above the 15 percent level–the standard used by the Commission on Presidential Debates–in public opinion polls if he is to be included in the fall TV debate(s).

Since the Crystal Ball is located in Virginia, we will inevitably follow this contest closely. In a dry year such as 2005, when only Virginia and New Jersey have gubernatorial races, even a trickling stream can appear to be a raging river. We’ll do our best to make a pedestrian election look heroic, in the interests of all political junkies!