Thursday, November 10, 2005

RICHMOND — President Bush’s sinking popularity helped seal Democrat Timothy M. Kaine’s victory in Virginia’s gubernatorial election Tuesday, politicians and pollsters said yesterday.

“We know that George Bush is just killing us,” said Delegate David B. Albo, a Republican who narrowly defeated his Democratic challenger in Fairfax County. “His popularity just brought the ticket down. There’s no other way to explain it.”

Mr. Kaine, the current lieutenant governor, defeated Republican Jerry W. Kilgore by six percentage points in a contest that had been a statistical dead heat in the days before the election.

With 99 percent of the state’s 2,395 precincts reporting, Mr. Kaine won 1,009,532 votes, or 52 percent, and Mr. Kilgore received 902,244 votes, or 46 percent. H. Russell PottsJr., an independent candidate, collected 43,675 votes, or 2 percent.

In addition, Mr. Kaine fared particularly well in Republican strongholds such as the outer suburbs of Northern Virginia, the Shenandoah Valley and Virginia Beach.

Scott Rasmussen, president of the New Jersey-based polling firm Rasmussen Reports, said the voters who made up their minds just before Election Day — about 12 percent of voters — favored Mr. Kaine by 15 percentage points.

That suggests some voters were turned off by a last-minute visit by Mr. Bush on Monday on Mr. Kilgore’s behalf. A Rasmussen survey of Virginia voters found that 51 percent approved of the president’s performance. Nationally, Mr. Bush has registered a 37 percent approval rating.

“It was not a good year to run as a Republican in Virginia,” said Mark Rozell, a public policy professor at George Mason University, adding that the Bush visit “probably backfired” and spurred Democrats to get out the vote.

What’s more, the Rasmussen survey found that Mr. Kaine won 22 percent of the Republican vote.

According to the Virginia State Board of Elections, voter turnout was 44.44 percent in Tuesday’s governor race. Turnout was 46.38 percent in 2001, when Democrat Mark Warner defeated Republican Mark Earley by five percentage points in the gubernatorial contest.

Virginia has been a staunchly conservative, Republican state for years, with nearly 54 percent of state voters last year helping to re-elect Mr. Bush. Republicans maintained their dominance in the House, despite losing three seats Tuesday. But down-ticket candidates faced surprisingly close contests with Democrats.

Still, Republican William T. Bolling defeated Democrat Leslie L. Byrne for the lieutenant governor spot by about 24,000 votes in a race that was closer than many had predicted.

Mr. Bolling, a state senator from Hanover, is one of the most conservative Republicans in the state, and Mrs. Byrne, Virginia’s first female congressional representative, is one of the most liberal.

And fewer than 2,000 votes separated the attorney general candidates — Republican Robert F. McDonnell and Democrat R. Creigh Deeds. Mr. Deeds is expected to petition for a recount after the State Board of Elections certifies Tuesday’s elections Nov. 28.

It would be a mistake, however, to think Virginia is becoming more liberal, said Harry Wilson, a political science professor at Roanoke College’s Center for Community Research.

“The Republicans offered a very conservative ticket, and it appears that two of their three statewide candidates were victorious,” Mr. Wilson said.

Citing Mr. Kaine’s victory, political strategist Chris LaCivita blamed state Republicans for not being tough enough on Mr. Warner, who campaigned with Mr. Kaine, or resistant enough to last year’s tax increase.

A centerpiece of Mr. Warner’s term was a $1.38 billion tax increase package that Mr. Kaine supported and Mr. Kilgore opposed. Several polls show many voters approved of the package, which funded education, public safety and health care and also cut some taxes.

“This is a guy who broke every campaign promise he made” including not raising taxes, said Mr. LaCivita, of Mr. Warner.

Mr. LaCivita, who ran Sen. George Allen’s 2000 campaign, said a lack of opposition to Mr. Warner allowed the governor’s popularity to “transcend to Tim Kaine.” In the Rasmussen poll, Mr. Warner had a 73 percent approval rating.

Other key factors in the Republicans’ gubernatorial defeat included a backlash against a series of ads criticizing Mr. Kaine’s position on the death penalty.

Mr. Rasmussen said the death penalty ads, which said Mr. Kaine would oppose the practice even for Adolf Hitler, backfired. “The ad alienated more people than it attracted.”

Kaine campaign strategist Mo Elleithee said Mr. Kaine started airing ads on transportation and controlling growth the day before the death penalty ads began airing.

He said voters in the outer suburbs saw both ads and asked themselves, “Which issue mattered more to them in their day to day lives? It was a no-brainer.”

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