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Which way will America's voters go?

Is the electorate moving to the left, to the right or just marching in place? Some indications will arrive on Tuesday night after voters go to the polls in Texas, California, and several other states to express their views on everything from same-sex marriage to abortion to the death penalty.
Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine speaks at a rally in Christiansburg, Va., Saturday.Steve Helber / AP
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ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Is the electorate moving to the left, to the right or just marching in place?

Some clues will arrive Tuesday night after polls close in Texas, California, and several other states where voters are casting their ballots on everything from same-sex marriage to abortion to the death penalty.

Among the notable contests:

  • In the race for governor of Virginia, a staunch death penalty proponent, Republican Jerry Kilgore, the former state attorney general, vies with Democrat Tim Kaine, the state's lieutenant governor, who has said capital punishment is unnecessary. Virginia is second only to Texas in the number of executions it has carried out since 1976.
  • A ban on same-sex marriage is on the Texas ballot.
  • Californians will vote on an array of initiatives including a parental notification requirement for minors seeking abortions and a measure supported by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that would make it harder for public school teachers to be granted tenure.
  • Voters in Democratic-leaning New Jersey choose a new governor, with Democratic Sen. Jon Corzine favored over Republican Doug Forrester.

Although these contests are not referendums on President Bush or his policies, some Democrats see the Virginia race as a chance to rebuke Bush.

Bush rallies for Kilgore Bush, who carried Virginia last November with 54 percent of the vote, stopped on his way back for his Latin American trip Monday night to campaign for Kilgore at an election-eve rally in the state capitol, Richmond.

Before a crowd of Republican volunteers and activists Bush praised Kilgore as a man who grew up on a farm and "understands how the common man thinks." Kilgore, he said, "doesn’t have a lot of fancy airs.”

Bush also in a veiled way referred to the issue of capital punishment. Kilgore, Bush said, "will enforce all the laws of the Commonwealth."

Kilgore has said Kaine can’t be trusted to carry out the death penalty "when he has spent his entire life and career opposing the death penalty.... What he says in his ads is that he’ll follow the law. Following the law in Virginia allows the governor for any reason or for no reason at all to commute the sentence of anyone on death row.”

Kaine who has denounced Kilgore’s ads as inaccurate and has said in his own ads, “I’ll enforce death sentences handed down by Virginia juries because that’s the law.” But he has also said he does not think the death penalty is necessary in order to have a safe society.

A chance to rebuke Bush?
Rep. Jim Moran, D- Va., who represents the solidly Democratic city of Alexandria and its environs, told a Kaine rally in Alexandria Monday that if Democrats allow Kilgore to win after he has campaigned Monday night with the president, "it will be an affirmation of where he [Bush] is taking this country… It is going to say that the American people in fact support us going into the Iraq war and that it doesn’t bother the American people so much that over in a needless war.... If the people of Virginia vote for Jerry Kilgore, that is the message that is sent around the world.”

Several days before Bush’s campaign appearance for Kilgore was announced, Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., who represents another northern Virginia suburban district that includes Fairfax County, said Kilgore needed to distance himself from a national mind-set that at the moment is not encouraging for Republicans.

“What you try to do is separate yourself from the national mood at this point  — which is not good. You try to put as much separation as you can and make it a state race,” Davis said. Bush’s trip to Richmond seems to defy this logic.

Asked to handicap the race, Davis said, “Fairfax County is likely to be Democratic this year in the governor’s race. It went for (Democrat John) Kerry last time (in 2004). The question is the size of margin here.”

If Kilgore falls below 46 percent in Fairfax County, “he would really have problems” winning, Davis said.

Davis and other Republicans predict that Kilgore will show strength in rural parts of the state that will allow him to overcome Kaine’s edge in suburbia.

While no Democratic presidential candidate has won the state since Lyndon Johnson did it 40 years ago, Virginia has elected four Democratic governors in the past 25 years: Chuck Robb, Gerald Baliles, Doug Wilder and the incumbent, Mark Warner.

Elected in 2001, Warner remains extremely popular in the state and has campaigned widely for Kaine.

Clash over illegal immigrants
Kilgore has run ads calling for a crackdown on illegal immigrants and he has accused his Democratic opponent, Kaine, of being unwilling to carry out the death penalty if elected governor.

After Monday's rally Kaine told reporters that Kilgore's use of the illegal immigration issue was “a late hail Mary pass."

“If my opponent really wants to do something about illegal immigration, he ought to take the opportunity when he is standing on stage with President Bush tonight to say to him, 'the federal government should follow and enforce the immigration laws.' They’re intentionally not enforcing the laws and they’re dumping the cost and consequences on state and local governments,” Kaine said.

State Senator Russell Potts Jr., a maverick Republican, is also on the ballot as an independent.

While you wait for Tuesday’s results, you can ponder last Tuesday’s election in Colorado.

By a narrow margin, Colorado voters approved a ballot measure which relaxed strict limits on taxes and spending. The Taxpayer Bill of Rights, known by its acronym TABOR, was enacted in 1992 and has been one of the most stringent controls on state spending in the nation.

Using a formula based on population growth and inflation, TABOR capped the amount of revenue the state was allowed to keep each year and required the surplus to be refunded to taxpayers.

The referendum approved by Colorado voters last week will allow the state to keep revenue in excess of the cap for the next five years.

Lessons from Colorado
“Colorado is moving to the middle,” said Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli, sizing up last Tuesday’s results.

By passing TABOR in 1992, “we in Colorado presaged the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. The era of the 1990s was dominated by Republicans out here.”

Last Tuesday’s outcome, he said, makes the state more competitive in next year’s congressional and gubernatorial elections.

One of the measures on the ballot this Tuesday in California is a TABOR-like spending limit, which Schwarzenegger supports. That measure would also give the governor more power to cut state spending.

There are plenty of other ballot initiatives for California voters to ponder:

  • Proposition 73 would amend the state constitution by prohibiting abortion for a minor until 48 hours after her physician notifies her parent or legal guardian, except in an medical emergency.
  • Proposition 74 would increase the length of time from two school years to five before a teacher could be granted tenure.
  • Proposition 75 would curb campaign contributions by public employee labor unions. Union leaders would need to get prior written consent from individual members for their dues money to be used for political purposes.
  • Finally, Proposition 77 would take the drawing of congressional district lines out of the hands of the heavily Democratic state legislature and hand it to a panel of retired judges. (A similar measure is on the ballot in Ohio.)

Bruce Cain, Director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, said that three of Tuesday’s ballot initiatives have national resonance.

The curb on unions using member dues for political campaign is important for “its implications for whether unions are still strong enough to repel attacks after the failure to win the (gubernatorial recall) election for the Democrats in 2004 and the split in the union leadership this past summer.”

The outcome on Proposition 77 is important, Cain said, “for its take on whether redistricting reform is the next wave, as some would hope, and for the possibility that new competitive seats in California might help swing the House against the Republicans if things do not turn around for Bush in the next year.”

And finally, the vote on the abortion measure is significant, Cain said, to see whether “a blue state like California accepts this restriction on abortion in the context of a likely Supreme Court debate over Roe v. Wade related to (Supreme Court nominee Samuel) Alito.”