February 10, 2006
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Kaine is governor of Virginia.