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Virginia Notebook: Can Kaine Stop McDonnell?

Moments after he was elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) left no doubt that the 2009 Virginia governor's race would become his top political priority.

"The two big races in 2009 are the New Jersey governorship and the Virginia governorship," Kaine told a group of reporters at the DNC meeting. "So it just happens ..... one of the most important races is right here in Virginia."

Kaine is sending a strong signal that national Democrats and President Obama plan to fiercely compete to win the Virginia governor's race.

With Kaine at the helm of the DNC, millions of dollars and the full weight of the national party organization will flow into Virginia this year, setting up a nationally watched race. If Democrats can win a third consecutive governor's race, it will be hard to argue the state is anything but blue.

The stakes couldn't be higher for Kaine. A loss in the first major race of the Obama administration in Kaine's home state could be an embarrassing blow to the governor's credibility on the national stage.

Following in the footsteps of Howard Dean as chairman, Kaine is being closely watched by liberal activists who are skeptical he can live up to Dean's accomplishments.

"I don't think Obama could have picked a more boring, less exciting person than Tim Kaine," Markos Moulitsas, founder of Daily Kos, an influential liberal blog, said in an interview last week. "But we have the White House. We have the Senate. We have the House. So no one really cares much about Kaine."

If Democrats lose in Virginia this year, activists could quickly turn on Kaine, which would make it harder for him to oversee the party heading into the 2010 midterm elections.

More importantly, Kaine's legacy as governor will probably rest on his ability to have a Democrat succeed him.

Going back to the 1970s, Virginia governors succeeded by a member of the same party have generally been viewed as successful in office. Those whose political opponents succeed them have had more difficulty in crafting a positive narrative about their legacies.

After James S. Gilmore III (R) left office in 2002, his successor, Democrat Mark R. Warner, spent the four years blaming him for the state's budget woes.

When Warner left office in 2006, he was succeeded by Kaine, who has spent three years praising his predecessor's decisions. If the GOP takes over the Governor's Mansion, the public probably will be blanketed with news for four years about what Kaine did wrong in office instead of what he did right.

"I wanted to win Virginia before I even contemplated being DNC chair," Kaine said last week. "I want to put people in place who will continue good results. The stakes were high regardless of my particular role, and I intend to work awfully hard to make us successful."

Kaine's political reputation has been on the line before. In 2007, many thought Kaine had to help Democrats win back the state Senate to validate his political skills as governor. (He did.) Last year, Kaine was charged with making sure Obama carried the state, even though it had last voted for a Democratic president in 1964. (He succeeded.)

Those victories helped Kaine earn a reputation as one of the most politically successful governors in the United States, one reason Obama asked him to take over the DNC, even though Kaine initially said he was not interested in the job.

But this year might pose Kaine's hardest political challenge.

Even though a Washington Post poll in October showed that Democrats had a 17-point advantage when voters were asked which party they want to win the Governor's Mansion this year, Democrats face a formidable opponent in Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell, the GOP's nominee-to-be.

Unlike some past GOP candidates in Virginia, McDonnell starts the campaign with a unified Republican base.

McDonnell, who will run on a ticket with Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R), can spend the next 10 months reaching out to suburban voters in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. (He grew up in Fairfax County and has spent his adult life in Virginia Beach.) McDonnell also plans to reach out to African American voters.

Although they are conservative, McDonnell and Bolling say they have learned from GOP losses. In other words, don't expect them to be talking about such divisive issues as abortion on the campaign trail. At a dinner with Washington Post reporters last week, Bolling stressed that he sponsored Virginia's child health insurance program when he was in the state Senate in the late 1990s.

Kaine's efforts to beat the McDonnell-Bolling ticket will largely be determined by how effective the Democratic nominee can be in the fall, whether it's Terry McAuliffe, Brian J. Moran or state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (Bath).

McAuliffe, Moran and Deeds all have electoral flaws that might cause them to start out as the underdog in a race against McDonnell, especially following a potentially nasty three-way primary.

Coming from Alexandria, Moran will have to battle an impression that he's too liberal to be elected.

Moran, who never faced a competitive race as delegate, is also untested in a major campaign. And he remains relatively unknown statewide. Some voters will undoubtedly confuse him with his brother, Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.).

McAuliffe is already being labeled by some as a carpetbagger, a theme the GOP probably would pick up on in the fall. McAuliffe also has no record in elected office.

And because he was a frequent guest on cable news programs as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, reams of footage could become fodder for a GOP advertising campaign. The Virginia GOP has compiled an extensive opposition research file on McAuliffe, GOP sources said.

Deeds, an unpolished speaker, lost to McDonnell in the 2005 attorney general's race. Deeds, like Moran, has struggled to articulate why he wants to be governor. And it's unclear whether Deeds, who voted to put the 2006 constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and civil unions on the ballot, can mobilize the party's liberal base in Northern Virginia. Deeds says he regrets his vote.

McAuliffe is expected to have access to plenty of money, but if Deeds or Moran wins the nomination, he probably will emerge from the primary broke, which could give McDonnell a crucial financial head start.

Kaine is staying out of the primary, saying publicly that any of the three Democratic candidates can prevail in the fall. But with so much at stake, it's no wonder that Kaine is vowing to campaign as if his own name were on the ballot.

By Tim Craig  |  January 28, 2009; 1:59 PM ET
Categories:  2009 Governor's Race , Robert F. McDonnell  
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Comments

Tim, I think it's pretty misleading to ascribe much of the difference between Gilmore's and Warner's reputations to whether they had a successor of the same party to praise them. It's pretty clear from the facts that Gilmore's administration *was* responsible for much of the state's budget woes, due to an unrealistic one-note campaign platform, ideological rigidity in dealing with a slump in revenues, and working to hide the Commonwealth's true financial state until after the election of his successor.

And on the flip side, numerous awards for the state illustrate that Warner's management and budget prowess were praised widely by neutral third parties, not just by his successor.

There are actual facts sometimes; not everything is just partisanship.

Posted by: jimeh | January 28, 2009 3:52 PM | Report abuse

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