Steve Helber  /  AP file
Tim Kaine, Democratic candidate for governor of Virginia, is seen as the party's "best shot" of winning a gubernatorial race in the South in a long time.
By Deputy political director
NBC News
updated 9/20/2005 7:13:51 PM ET 2005-09-20T23:13:51

Linwood Holton knows something about one-party dominance in the South. In 1965, this Republican ran for governor in Democratic-controlled Virginia and lost. Decisively. But four years later, he ran again and won — due largely to a split among Democrats — becoming the first Republican to hold that state’s top job in 100 years.

Since Holton’s victory, the South’s political composition has changed:

Republicans now hold more than three-fourths of the combined governorships and U.S. Senate seats in the former Confederate states. And both John Kerry and Al Gore were unable to win a single Southern state in the last two presidential elections.

Yet on a Saturday afternoon in August, in this rural town nestled in Southwest Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, Holton was once again trying to buck the political dominance in the South — this time as he campaigned for Democrat Tim Kaine, who’s locked in a tight contest with Republican Jerry Kilgore in this year’s race for Virginia governor.

Here in Stuart, which was celebrating its peach festival, both Holton and Kaine stepped inside a coffee shop to hunt for votes. Holton, 81, approached a group of seniors sitting down in a booth and made his pitch for Kaine. “He’s a real good candidate,” he told them.

But Kaine, the state’s lieutenant governor, isn’t just any candidate. He happens to be Holton’s son-in-law. He also might be the Democrats’ best hope of reversing the party’s fortunes in the increasingly Republican South.

‘The best shot ... in a long time’
“It is the best shot they’ve had in a competitive governors race in a long time,” said Jennifer Duffy of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

But a victory by Kaine — or any Democrat in the South — will still be tough to come by.

In 2003, Democrats lost control of the governor’s mansions in Mississippi and Kentucky. In 2004, they lost Senate races in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina and South Carolina. Indeed, although the Democrats won gubernatorial contests in North Carolina and West Virginia in 2004, the only competitive major statewide election they’ve won in the South in the last two years is when Kathleen Blanco defeated political newcomer Bobby Jindal for Louisiana governor.

Kaine, however, is trying to beat recent history, and the ace up his sleeve is one of the few Southern Democrats who still hold major office today: Virginia Gov. Mark Warner. As it turns out, Warner is the most popular politician in the state — his job approval rating is 76 percent, according to a Washington Post poll released earlier this month — and he has endorsed Kaine and plans to campaign for him later this fall.

“Mark Warner is the elephant in the room,” said Chuck Todd, editor-in-chief of The Hotline, a political tip sheet.

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Part of that popularity is due to Warner’s politically moderate views in this red state. Perhaps a bigger part is due to the budget agreement Warner pushed through the state legislature in 2004. Facing a budget shortfall and the threat of losing the state’s bond rating, Warner championed a series of tax increases (and some tax decreases) to close that gap and also provide millions in new education and health-care spending. Polls since then have shown that Virginians overwhelmingly approve of that budget agreement.

Kaine has tried to attach himself to Warner, and he says their success has boosted his chances in a state that voted for President Bush last year, 54 percent to 45 percent. “People are happy with the way the state is being run,” Kaine said in an interview. “So we have been able to close that gap and run a race that’s a dead heat.”

Kaine repeated that message in a debate last week with Kilgore.

“The question that has to be asked … is Virginia better off as a state after four years of the Warner-Kaine administration?” he said. “Do you want this state to go forward, or do you want it to go backward?”

‘The opposite on every single issue’
But Kilgore, the state’s former attorney general, argues that Warner and his popularity won’t impact the race as much as some might think. “Voters vote based upon the two candidates,” he said in an interview, adding that he and Kaine are poles apart philosophically. “I’m the opposite on every single issue.”

Indeed, Kilgore has tried to put distance between Warner and Kaine by portraying Kaine as a liberal — seizing on his personal opposition to the death penalty, his reluctance to oppose public funds that pay for a day-laborer center in Northern Virginia (used by illegal immigrants), and the tax increases that were part of the 2004 budget agreement.

“The only thing he worries about is the taxpayers taking away his right to raise more taxes,” Kilgore said of Kaine during last week’s debate. “He’s always raised taxes. Always has. Always will.”

Robert Holsworth, director of the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government at Virginia Commonwealth University, says the race will largely boil down to this: “Does Kaine look like Warner, or does he look like Kerry?”

There’s some evidence that Warner’s success isn’t rubbing off on Kaine. In the same Washington Post poll that had Warner’s approval rating at 76 percent, Kilgore was leading Kaine in the gubernatorial contest, 45 percent to 41 percent. At the same time, however, the survey found that Kilgore hasn’t been entirely successful in painting Kaine as a liberal: Only 27 percent think he’s too liberal, vs. 41 percent who say his views on the issues are just about right.

A more recent Mason-Dixon poll shows a much tighter race, with Kilgore leading Kaine, 41 percent to 40 percent.

Bush's declining ratings could have impact
And Warner might not be the only outside figure who could impact this contest. So could President Bush, who has seen his job approval decline after Hurricane Katrina, record-high gas prices, and growing dissatisfaction with his handling of Iraq. According to that same Mason-Dixon poll, 18 percent of respondents say Bush’s endorsement of Kilgore would make them less likely to vote for Kilgore, while just 7 percent say it would make them more likely to vote for him. Seventy-two percent suggest it would have no effect.

But perhaps the biggest outside influence on the race will be the South itself. Since the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, says Emory University political scientist Merle Black, southern white voters have abandoned the Democratic Party in droves for the GOP. And the recent culture wars (over abortion, evolution, and religion’s place in public life) have only cemented that shift.

Yet Black contends that Democrats can still win races in the South — especially those for governor, which tend not to focus as much on hot-button social and foreign policy issues. Indeed, even if Kaine loses, Black says that Democrats have decent shots of winning gubernatorial races in Alabama and Georgia next year.

But Democrats don’t want to wait until next year. On that Saturday afternoon in August, after stopping here in Stuart, both Kaine and Linwood Holton headed to Galax, Va., where Kaine addressed a crowd of about 40 supporters outside his local campaign headquarters. He touted the state’s budget reform, and he told the audience that he’s reaching out to Democrats, independents, and Republicans.

Then, with a nod to his father-in-law, Kaine said, “It’s not bad having a Republican governor on the campaign trail with me.”

And for Democrats, it won’t be bad if Kaine pulls off what Holton did in 1969: upset the political balance of power in the South.

Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News

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