Yes, Virginia, Kaine Is Running to the Right

Posted May 25, 2005 at 2:26pm

Democrats across the country may well want to keep an eye on the Virginia governor’s race this year to see how Democratic Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine’s message of cultural conservatism sells in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Before I listened to the Kaine campaign’s first wave of radio spots — which were aimed at socially conservative, rural Virginia voters and went on the air in late March — the two culturally conservative Democratic ads that stuck out in my mind were probably one by Rep. Stephanie Herseth (S.D.) in 2004 and another by Rep. Jim Cooper (Tenn.) in 1994.

Herseth, running for re-election for the first time, ran a TV spot, “Faith,” that referred to her participation in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

Cooper, who lost his statewide bid but has since returned to the United States House of Representatives, was running against Republican Fred Thompson to fill the remainder of then-Vice President Al Gore’s Senate term in the Volunteer State.

Cooper’s ad opened with a shot of people leaving a church service. It pulled back to show Cooper standing in front of the church and talking directly into the camera.

“My great-grandparents’ church was built over a hundred years ago. It’s where I was baptized and our children were baptized. The values I learned here are just as important as when this church was built.

“Respect for each other. Respect for the law. The value of hard work. Discipline in our classrooms. Prayer in our schools. And swift, certain justice in our courts,” said Cooper, in an obvious attempt to neutralize charges that he might be too liberal to represent state voters in the Senate.

The mention of prayer, the shot of the church and the mention of Cooper’s religious background were unusual in a Democratic ad then, and they remain so today.

But Kaine’s ads go even further, perhaps reflecting a hyper-concern among Democrats in the South about being branded as a cultural liberal by their GOP opponents.

“My family and Christian faith are the core values that guide me,” says the Democrat in his first 60-second radio spot, “Values.”

“I’m a dedicated husband who holds his marriage vows sacred, and I’m the father of three great kids. As a young man, I served as a Christian missionary, teaching religion, carpentry and welding to poor children in Honduras,” he continues.

“The Bible teaches us that we can accomplish great things when we work together,” Kaine says.

His third radio spot, “Conservative — Final Revised,” begins with the same reference to the Bible, but goes on to assert that he “cut taxes as mayor of Richmond,” will “enforce the death penalty as governor,” and is “against same-sex marriage.” “I’m conservative on personal responsibility, character, family and the sanctity of life.”

Just to make sure voters could figure out his positions on cultural issues, Kaine drove his views home with another radio ad, “Weak Revised.”

“I’m Tim Kaine,” begins the spot. “My Christian faith teaches life is sacred. I personally oppose abortion and the death penalty. But I take my oath of office as seriously as my marriage oath. I’ll carry out death sentences because that’s the law. I support restrictions on abortion. Parental consent for minors … a ban on partial birth abortion … no public funding of abortions.”

The ad continues to criticize his likely GOP opponent for governor, former Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, for allegedly wanting to “weaken our schools, take cops off our street and raise our home owner taxes.” “Jerry Kilgore. The wrong values. Too weak to lead Virginia,” ends the spot.

Kaine is obviously trying to do what now-Gov. Mark Warner (D) did four years ago when Warner was seeking the governorship: neutralize cultural issues in a way that allows him to focus on other themes and issues where he can go on the offensive. That shouldn’t be a surprise, since many of the major players in Warner’s 2001 campaign, including campaign manager Mike Henry, are working for Kaine.

For Warner, that issue was guns. I note this whenever I look at the wall directly across from my desk and see the “Sportsmen for Mark Warner” t-shirt that is hanging as a decoration.

Of course, Kaine hasn’t run these cultural values ads in Northern Virginia, where he’ll need the support — financial and electoral — of Volvo-driving, merlot-drinking Democrats who become uncomfortable when politicians mention religion.

To win in November, Republican Kilgore needs to take advantage of the state’s conservative and Republican bent, which means he’ll need to focus on issues that paint Kaine as a national Democrat who is out of sync with the state’s politics.

Republicans have already been trying to do that for months, in part by noting that Kilgore, unlike Kaine, is a native Virginian. (Kaine grew up in Kansas.) But they’ll have to do more than that. After all, Gov. Mark Warner was born in Indianapolis, grew up in Connecticut, attended George Washington University and earned a degree from Harvard Law School — yet he was elected to the commonwealth’s top job, and proven to be popular in office.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.