Straw in the wind?

It’s always a mistake to read too much into off-off-year elections*, but the victory of Democrat Tim Kaine in the race for governor of Virginia may have some interesting implications.

Kaine, a political centrist who spoke frequently of his religious faith, defeated Republican Jerry Kilgore in a state that George W. Bush carried last year with 54 percent of the vote.

While saying that as a Catholic he was morally opposed to the death penalty and abortion, Kaine also promised to enforce the existing laws allowing both. He was able to state beliefs that most voters disagreed with (in one instance or another), separate them from his duties as governor and win enough support to defeat Kilgore, a self-described “pro-gun, anti-tax, limited government, anti-illegal immigration, pro-public safety, pro-death penalty, culture-of-life, trust-the-people conservative.”

That is, Kilgore pushed all the traditional buttons to attract conservative “red-state” voters, and still lost in a state that hasn’t chosen a Democrat for President since 1964.

It would be a stretch to attribute Kaine’s victory to Bush’s current unpopularity, but a last-minute appearance by the President at a Kilgore campaign event had no apparent benefit for the GOP candidate.

By contrast, support from the popular current Democratic governor, Mark Warner, seemed to help Kaine (in Virginia, governors are limited to one four-year term). And Kaine’s success in turn may give Warner an early boost in the running for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.

Warner understands the importance of Democrats winning support from the rural and small-town voters who went overwhelmingly for Bush over John Kerry in 2004.

“People in rural America may speak a little slower, but they can spot a phony a mile away,” Warner says. “You see other candidates who say, ‘Let’s just do the optics.’ But unless you feel as comfortable hanging out at a country fair or having a beer and eatin’ some barbecue as you do at your high-end, high-tech reception, people are going to see through that.”

No prizes for guessing where John Kerry appeared more comfortable.

Now if only Democrats would stop talking about “exit strategies” and start talking about strategies for success in Iraq…

*Almost all state governors are selected during presidential elections or off-year elections two years later. One year after presidential elections, the only elections for governor are in New Jersey and Virginia.