February 10, 2006
How I Won
By Tim Kaine
I am honored to be serving as the 70th governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia. How I got to the governor's mansion is a story that may be of interest to other Democrats, especially given the daunting challenges my campaign faced.
For starters, I ran in a state that President Bush had won by 8 percentage points in 2004. In addition, I began with a 21-point name identification deficit and lagged behind in every poll -- sometimes by double digits -- until September 2005, only two months before the election. Finally, I was targeted by an unprecedented series of negative attack ads and was financially out-raised and outspent through most of the contest.
Yet I won the popular vote by a margin of 6 points and more than 113,000 voters. I attribute my victory to three factors: the exceptional popularity of Gov. Mark Warner, my predecessor and partner over the past four years; my campaign's understanding of Virginia's changing demographics; and my ability to speak directly to voters and offer them a positive vision for our future.
As a candidate in 2001, Warner had offered voters a compelling story. He was a successful businessman who wanted to use his boardroom expertise to fix a government so badly mismanaged that the Republican governor and the Republican state legislature couldn't even reach agreement on a state budget. After four years at the helm, Warner was given great credit for enacting record spending cuts, thus preserving Virginia's sterling credit rating. He also enacted historic bipartisan budget reform and earned the ranking of Best-Managed State from Governing magazine. Warner's approval rating grew to a record 80 percent.
Voters in 2005 understood that Virginia was much better off than it had been four years earlier. At the same time, voters were anxious about the direction the country was going under Republican management. The voters also knew that I, as lieutenant governor, had worked closely with Governor Warner, while my opponent, Jerry Kilgore, the state attorney general, had fought against him on practically everything.
Just as Warner had done in 2001, I had to accomplish three things to win in a red state. First, I had to find and energize Democratic voters. Second, I had to share my story with the voters. Third, I had to reach out to independent and Republican voters in a strategic way. And that's exactly what we did.
The generally positive feelings Democrats had heading into the election made them easier to energize. This was a significant contrast to Republican voters, whose enthusiasm was dampened by dissatisfaction with the Bush administration, various Washington scandals, and criticism over the response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In Virginia, Kilgore was failing to excite his Republican base. That lack of enthusiasm was highlighted last summer, when, in the GOP primary, nearly 20 percent of Republican voters supported Kilgore's little-known and underfinanced challenger.
To find and turn out Democrats, we identified and targeted a group we labeled as "federal Democrats" -- people who vote in presidential election years but typically stay home during statewide elections. A quick examination of the last few election cycles illustrates just how significant that block of voters is.
In 2001, Mark Warner won the governor's race by a margin of 4.5 percentage points. Three years later, John Kerry lost Virginia by 8 points. But Kerry received almost half a million more votes than Warner. We spared little, in terms of time and attention, to reach these voters, knowing they would vote for us if we got them to show up at the polls.
I also thought it was important to tell my personal story and share my values and motivation with voters. After all, a candidate who fails to clearly define himself will be defined by his opponent's attacks.
I wanted to explain to people how my faith and my heart for public service, formed while serving as a missionary in Central America, inspire me to seek public office. As a law student at Harvard 25 years ago, I found myself with a lot of options but little direction. I decided to take off a year and work with Catholic missionaries in Honduras. I was the principal of a small vocational school, teaching carpentry, religion, and academics to children who had no other educational options. Second only to becoming a father, that experience was the most formative of my life. It has influenced everything I have done since -- from my career as a civil rights attorney to my service in local and state offices.
Just as it is in my life, my religious faith was a vital part of that story. I spoke about it often. But it wasn't clear until late in the race how much of an impact my faith would play in the contest, when Kilgore ran aggressive death penalty attack ads. Using the family members of crime victims, Kilgore insisted that my personal faith-based opposition to capital punishment would prevent me from carrying out executions. The ads were shocking and emotional. They led some pundits to immediately claim they would sink my campaign.
We quickly pointed out several untruths in the ads. A backlash began to form in both the press and the public to the nasty tone of Kilgore's campaign. I was also able to respond through my own ads, telling voters that I took the oath of office as seriously as my wedding vows.
We understood from the beginning of the campaign that our path to victory would be different from that of Governor Warner's 2001 campaign. Our strategy had to reflect that reality.
Warner had run against a suburban Republican from the Hampton Roads/Norfolk area, thus making the rural parts of the state the battleground. Warner focused a lot of his campaign on rural areas, especially in southwestern Virginia. He promised that a combination of new technology, better educational opportunities, and more attention from the state government would create a brighter economic future. That focus paid off when he performed remarkably well in the rural areas.
My opponent, by contrast, was a southwest Virginia native, with strong family and professional ties throughout the region. We knew that he would run well there. So we focused our strategy on winning extra support from the suburbs, where two-thirds of Virginia's population lives.
I had already decided on a policy platform that held a natural appeal for suburban voters. It included tax relief for homeowners, a statewide pre-K initiative, a balanced approach to growth, and new transportation solutions.
Our campaign strategy focused on eight "battleground" localities. These were suburban counties in Northern Virginia, Richmond, Hampton Roads, and Central Virginia that routinely go Republican. Our goal was not to win these suburbs, but to cut in half the GOP's usual margin of victory.
But we dramatically exceeded our expectations in the "battleground" localities. Rather than just cutting our margin of defeat, we actually won six of the eight counties we targeted. We also out-performed our goals in the other two. And therein lies the secret of our statewide victory.
Even as we methodically laid out our strategy, told my personal story, and offered an optimistic message of building on our success on key issues, Kilgore only relied more heavily on negative television and radio attack ads.
When Kilgore's death penalty attack ads failed to generate any movement in the polls, he tried to label me as a tax-raiser, a liberal, and a flip-flopper. When those failed to gain any traction, he tried to focus the race on the issue of illegal immigration, which was a growing concern in Northern Virginia. His attacks attracted national media attention, because illegal immigration is a hot topic in other parts of the country.
I responded by saying that I was opposed to illegal immigration, but that it was wrong to ask our local police officers to do the job of the federal government. I also reminded people that if Kilgore really wanted to do something about immigration, all he had to do was pick up a phone and call Bush and his Republican friends in Washington. He could tell them to do their jobs by enforcing the immigration laws.
When you consider the margins by which I won the regions he targeted with that attack ad, an argument can be made that it ultimately backfired.
While motivating our Democratic base, we strategically and successfully reached out to independent and Republican voters. We fought hard and avoided being the other side's punching bag. At the same time, we held the high ground by offering a positive message for the future. And most important, our agenda focused on the real-life issues -- homeowner's tax relief, pre-K, transportation -- that mattered to the suburban voters we targeted.
Winning support in fast-growing suburbs was the key to winning this election. In 2004, Bush won 97 of the nation's 100 fastest-growing counties. To counter that trend, I aimed to connect with those voters by running a campaign focused on "quality of life" issues. Overcrowded schools, highway congestion, sprawl, housing prices, and property taxes are problems that didn't go away when the 1990s ended. They are big concerns in the places where I campaigned and won.
When I told suburban voters that I wanted to help them "grow right and get there faster," it resonated with suburban voters, regardless of what political affiliation they held. This addressed their top two concerns: How to preserve the lifestyle they sought by moving to the suburbs, and how to contend with the biggest drags on their quality of life there -- transportation and traffic.
That's why, as governor-elect, my first act was to hold town hall meetings in key locations, around the state, to discuss transportation solutions.
I now have the opportunity to put my platform into place. It won't be easy. Republicans control both chambers of the Virginia Legislature. But I welcome the challenge.
Tim Kaine is governor of Virginia.