In a speech to an audience of Democratic supporters on election night, Gov. Tim Kaine recounted the progress the party had made since 2001. The record had been impressive: two consecutive gubernatorial election victories, a restored majority in the state Senate in 2007, two U.S. Senate seats, a gain of three seats in the Virginia delegation to the House of Representatives, and, of course, the historic triumph by President Barack Obama in his 2008 election.
Kaine played a part in all of those developments: endorsing candidates, raising money and rallying the party faithful. The ultimate payoff was Kaine's appointment as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, a job that the governor had once commented would not be appropriate for a sitting governor.
Yet the committee chairman's position was a fitting appointment for a governor whose legacy will be based largely and distinctively on the electoral fortunes of his party. As Kaine prepares to hand the keys of the Executive Mansion to Republican Bob McDonnell, the enduring effects of that legacy remain in doubt.
For better or worse, recent Virginia governors left office with at least one major public policy accomplishment: Chuck Robb increased education spending; Gerald Baliles transportation; Doug Wilder gun control and fiscal discipline; Jim Gilmore the car-tax cut; George Allen standards of learning and welfare reform; and Mark Warner a major budget deal.
By comparison, with perhaps the exception of a mental health bill, it's difficult to attribute a major legislative accomplishment to Kaine that relates to his original campaign goals or a critical state problem. He'll leave office with no universal pre-kindergarten initiative, no transportation plan and a mounting debt. Those conditions may jeopardize Kaine's administrative record, measured by Virginia's A ranking according to Governing magazine.
Kaine's weak record of legislative accomplishments is somewhat ironic given his gifted speaking ability and penchant for public policy details. Some might attribute his problems to a recalcitrant Republican majority in the House of Delegates. But other governors have managed to deal with divisions within and across parties. Kaine may have complicated the process of bipartisan governing by pursuing a partisan strategy. Once a governor from either party accepts the mantle of national party chair, he or she foregoes the prospect of bipartisan leadership.
The problem with a political legacy is that electoral gains can be fleeting. The sweeping success of Republican candidates in the 2009 elections has tarnished Gov. Kaine's political legacy. The Republicans won all three statewide offices for the first time since 1997 and did so by overwhelming margins. By the time the final votes are counted, governor-elect McDonnell's win over Democrat Creigh Deeds by more than 17 percent may surpass the margin recorded in Republican George Allen's trouncing of Democrat Mary Sue Terry in the 1993 gubernatorial election. McDonnell won majorities in nine of 11 congressional districts, gaining more than 60 percent of the vote in eight of those districts. He even won Fairfax County, an emerging stronghold for Democratic candidates. Republicans picked up at least five seats in the House of Delegates, recouping nearly all of the losses they had suffered since Kaine took office.
The 2009 election was not a direct referendum on President Obama; after all, he wasn't on the ballot and if he had been the electorate would have consisted of far more Democratic voters. But, much as national committee Chairman Kaine wishes to separate the state's election results from national Democratic politics, it's difficult to conclude that the wholesale shift in voting behavior in just one year is merely a result of local and state issues and circumstances.
If McDonnell deserves credit for running an effective campaign, then we should acknowledge that his basic message was an alternative to the expansive federal programs, exploding national debt and impending higher taxes that define the direction of the national government under a unified Democratic Party.
Based on exit poll results, many Democratic voters apparently were asleep on Election Day, driving the rate of turnout among registered voters to a historic low. In their absence, Republican turnout held steady, while independents voted overwhelmingly for GOP candidates. Even if Kaine, Deeds and Obama succeeded in rallying their party's voting base, independents would have decided the outcome. At the very least, the results show that the state of Virginia has not turned blue.
An objective analysis supports the conclusion that in pursuit of a decidedly liberal policy agenda through strictly partisan means, Obama and congressional Democrats have lost the confidence of independent voters. The 2009 election results coincide with numerous public opinion polls that show declining approval ratings for Obama and the Democratic Congress and opposition to the party's policies among this key swing voting block.
Thus the 2009 elections leave Gov. Kaine with an uncertain legacy. On one hand, during his tenure the Democratic Party registered large numbers of young people, African Americans and generally progressive voters. And as Kaine noted in recent remarks, Democrats hold a majority of the Virginia seats in the House of Representatives.
But the question is whether the new Democrats will make voting for the party a habit, or if they are primarily supporters of President Obama. The answer to the question and the fate of Kaine's political legacy remain in doubt, perhaps for another year. In the 2010 midterm congressional elections, incumbent Democrats across the country, including the three first-term House Democrats from Virginia, will face stiff challenges as they stand to defend their party's record after two years of controlling both the Congress and the presidency.
Daniel Palazzolo is professor of political science and director of the Center for Government and Policy at the University of Richmond.