No Clear Favorite Seen in Virginia's Governor's Race
By Amy Biegelsen, Special to Stateline
Lt. Gov. Timothy Kaine (D) and former Attorney General Jerry Kilgore (R) dramatically overshadow the other two candidates vying to be Virginia's next governor in a political off-year election destined to attract more money and national attention.
"The race is close so far, and has every sign of staying that way down the stretch," said Larry Sabato, the University of Virginia's director of the Center for Politics.
Virginia and New Jersey are the only states with governor's races this year. Virginia, the sole state to limit its chief executive to a single four-year term, will choose a successor on Nov. 8 to Democratic Gov. Mark Warner.
Virginia, a so-called "red state," has a Republican-controlled General Assembly and hasn't gone for a Democrat for president since 1964. It recently was ranked among the top 10 governor's offices most in danger of a partisan change in 2005 or 2006 in a list compiled by Louis Jacobson of Roll Call, a newspaper covering Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
Finding funding for transportation, education and Medicaid seems to be the likely challenge the winner must face. Skyrocketing real-estate taxes have prompted both major candidates to offer plans to reduce payments citizens make on their homes. Kaine favors allowing localities to exempt from taxation up to 20 percent of a home's value. Kilgore's plan would amend the state Constitution to cap real-estate rate increases at 5 percent.
The state's two Republican U.S. senators, John Warner and George Allen, as well as former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore (R) have thrown their support to Kilgore, who faces a June 14 primary runoff against Warrenton Mayor George Fitch.
The former attorney general has staked out a tough-on-crime platform and holds traditionally conservative views on most social issues. During the 2005 legislative session, he worked with allies in the Legislature to help pass a bill that increased the number of crimes eligible for capital punishment. He favors greater restrictions on abortions, and supports amending the state Constitution to ban gay marriage.
"Kilgore is running as the solid conservative in a solidly conservative state," Sabato said. Kilgore has tried to paint Kaine as a tax-raising liberal and famously called him "John Kerry with a Richmond address."
Indeed, like the senator from Massachusetts, Kaine is a Catholic lawyer. However, unlike Kerry, the lieutenant governor discusses his faith publicly and frequently. Kaine says he opposes abortion and the death penalty for religious reasons, but pledges to uphold laws that protect both. He promises to fully fund the state's education formula without raising taxes.
Kaine, who is unopposed in the primary, has garnered support from former Virginia Gov. Linwood Holton, a moderate Republican and the candidate's father-in-law. Warner, the current governor whose name has been floated as a potential candidate for the U.S. Senate or even the White House in 2008, also endorses Kaine.
Warner's rising star and the fact that 2005 is an off-year for national elections have conspired to draw national attention -- and money -- to Virginia's race.
According to the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan campaign finance watchdog group, the Democratic National Committee donated $1.5 million to Kaine's campaign in January and remains his most generous supporter to date.
By the end of March, Kaine's campaign collected close to $8 million in pledges, while Kilgore's campaign raised nearly $7.2 million.
No national Republican organization has made such a large cash donation directly to Kilgore's campaign, but a political action committee created by the Republican Governors Association footed the bill for Kilgore's most recent television commercial: an ad estimated to have cost $300,000 that undercuts Kaine's claim to have reduced taxes as Richmond's mayor. The narrator warns viewers that when a liberal promises to cut taxes, "better hang on to your wallet."
The Kilgore-approved commercial captures the early hostility that has defined the campaign so far.
The Democratic candidate has accused Kilgore of "ducking" several invitations for face-to-face debate. Kilgore's camp says Kaine has taken swipes at his accent.
Independent challenger Russ Potts, who is still collecting signatures but is expected to make the November ballot, says Kaine and Kilgore are behaving "like two kids in a sandbox."
Potts is a state senator from Winchester, Va., and chairman of the Senate Health and Education Committee. A sports promoter, he's campaigning as the common-sense candidate to solve the state's problems funding transportation and education.
Challenging Kilgore in the Republican primary is Fitch, a self-described "Reagan Republican." No stranger to long shots, the former Reagan trade attaché helped take the Jamaican bobsled team to the 1988 winter Olympics and inspired the Disney movie "Cool Runnings."
Fitch vigorously opposes taxes and has expressed dismay that the state party has already embraced Kilgore before the primary. Kilgore has turned down Fitch's invitations for debate. Kilgore's aides make it clear that they believe Kaine is their only competition.
Amy Biegelsen is a freelance journalist based in Richmond, Va.