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Virginia Follies (I): Death And Voting

Your party has lost the public's trust. You've lost, in quick succession, two governor's races, both Senate seats, one house of the legislature, and the fastest-growing region in the state. Most frightening of all, voters seem to think your party is narrow-minded, cynical, and stuck in an outdated vision of the electorate.

So if you are Virginia's Republican party, what do you do?

Well, for starters this session in Richmond, the GOP in just a few days has already moved to expand the death penalty and reject reforms that would have created a strictly bipartisan redistricting plan and an expansion of absentee voting--reforms, by the way, that were supported by solidly Republican business groups.

Talk about cementing your image as the party that says No.

The GOP's reflexive opposition to reform is enough to cause one of the party's own former candidates for governor to scream out in anguish about the Republican death wish.

The move on the death penalty came on a bill that I featured yesterday here on the big blog.

But there's more--coming up in a couple of hours here on Raw Fisher, I'll take a look at yet another GOP move that is raising eyebrows about the party's ability to reestablish itself as a contender with alternative solutions to the state's problems.

In the death penalty move yesterday, the Senate voted 24-16 to expand use of capital punishment by adding accomplices in murder cases to the list of people eligible for frying. The state's current "triggerman" law limits executions to those who actually commit the deed, rather than those who may have conspired with or helped the killer.

The legislature passed that expansion of the law last year, but Gov. Tim Kaine vetoed the bill (as he had the year before)and its supporters didn't have enough votes to override Kaine's veto.

Again this year, the margin of victory for the bill is just shy of what the senators would need to override an inevitable Kaine veto.

Interestingly, all four of Virginia's gubernatorial candidates, Democrat and Republican alike, this year not only favor the death penalty, but would approve its expansion. Republican Bob McDonnell and Democrats Brian Moran and Creigh Deeds favor expanding capital punishment by scrapping the triggerman rule; Democrat Terry McAuliffe would "not oppose" such a move, according to his spokesman.

(This despite the moves across the Potomac in Maryland toward repeal of capital punishment--for more on that, see yesterday's post here on the blog.)

Death penalty politics is usually a sideshow, especially in Virginia, where the Republicans' once-winning formula of gays, guns, God and other hot-button social issues has been wearing thin in recent elections.

But lawmakers are eager to find some distraction from budget cutting this session. Since it's hardly likely that any significant new spending programs can be passed this year--at least not until any federal infrastructure initiative gets going later in the year--there may be a resort to some tired old social issues to score political points.

In the end, however, the only action is likely to be rhetorical--Kaine is not about to sign any expansion of the death penalty. But Democrats in Richmond are happy to have yet another chance to paint their Republican foes as ever-more isolated social conservatives bent on pushing their agenda on an increasingly moderate population.

Coming up at 10:30: Should the state create incentives for teens to do the right thing when a friend is dangerously drunk?

By Marc Fisher |  January 28, 2009; 8:25 AM ET
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