- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 13, 2005

If last week’s governors elections and the exuberant Democratic claims after sounded familiar, that’s because it was, in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, “deja vu all over again.”

Four years ago, Democrats also won the governorships of Virginia and New Jersey in the only two statewide contests in that 2001 off-year election. The next day Democrats and political news analysts said the results proved Republicans were in trouble and would suffer serious losses in 2002’s elections.

But it didn’t turn out that way. The Republicans, with some nonstop campaigning by President Bush, made sizable gains in the House and Senate and maintained their majority in the governorships. And they made more gains in 2004 and kept their advantage over Democrats in the state capitals.

Nevertheless, Democratic leaders and political pundits renewed the 2001 claims last week after the GOP’s losses in Virginia and New Jersey. Not only did they point to a Democratic takeover on Capitol Hill next year, but said the results were all due to backlash against President Bush and his party.

“It’s going to be a real shot in the arm for Democratic efforts to take back the House and Senate in 2006,” said New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. As to what caused last Tuesday’s results, well, Mr. Schumer huffed and puffed, it was “a clear repudiation of George W. Bush and the Republican agenda.”

But it doesn’t take a lot of deep insight to discover there’s a lot of exaggeration going on here.

Let’s dismiss any trends out of New Jersey. Democratic Sen. Jon Corzine won because of a nearly 2-1 Democratic advantage, an ultraliberal agenda and a lot of get-out-the-vote money Mr. Corzine gave to black church leaders and union bosses. It is hard to see how Mr. Bush or his party affected this race at all.

Second, as Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman said after the results were in: “This was a status-quo Election Day. There were 28 Republican governors before the election and there were 28 Republican governors after the election.”

Virginia, however, tells a little different story, but the way liberal Democratic leaders portray it.

Consider the kind of centrist to right-of-center campaign Democratic Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine ran. He focused on bread-and-butter economic-growth issues, transportation gridlock and roads. He campaigned as a Second Amendment Democrat who supported gun rights, and talked openly and frequently about his religious faith and values — issues that are not in the national Democratic Party’s mantra.

Mr. Kaine, in other words, used the campaign playbook of Democratic Gov. Mark Warner, who followed a similar game plan in his election four years ago. Little wonder then, that, with Mr. Warner finishing his term with an 82 percent approval rating and Virginia’s economy one of the most robust in the country, voters wanted the closest thing to a second Warner term, and chose Mr. Kaine over former Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, whose campaign was weak, vague and inept.

Missing from most of the national postelection analysis, however, is the fact that outside of the governor’s office, Republicans won the No. 2 and No. 3 statewide contests for lieutenant governor and attorney general and lost only one seat in the state legislature, which they control.

It is difficult to fathom how Mr. Bush’s slump in the national polls plays into what happened in either of these elections. When his approval polls were at 87 percent four years ago, the GOP still lost Virginia and New Jersey.

Even so, Democrats appear to be gaining a foothold in Virginia, a state that was once reliably Republican and remains so in presidential elections. Mr. Bush carried Virginia with nearly 54 percent of the vote.

If there is a lesson Virginia’s Republicans need to learn, it is the critical importance of running on galvanizing issues that energize and unite their party’s base and reach out to new voters among independents and swing Democrats.

The GOP needs to go back and reread the campaign playbooks of two former Republican governors. Both ran on popular, signature issues that cut across all political lines. George Allen campaigned on a get-tough-on-crime platform that called for abolishing parole. James Gilmore called for repealing the hated car tax and not only cruised to victory but swept the Democrats out of power in the legislature.

Mr. Kilgore had no such large signature issue to overcome a resurgent, centrist-leaning Democratic game plan.

Does any of this suggest a trend is building toward a congressional turnover in November 2006? Not as long as polls show most Americans like the job their own member of Congress is doing.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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