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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

YOUR TAX DOLLARS AT WORK

Borders are unsecure, the Iraq debate is raging, the deficit is soaring, a Supreme Court nominee has yet to have his hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee and pressing issues from Boston to Sacramento have the nation divided, and the illustrious Sen. Arlen Specter is tackling and issue that truly affects us all: the "unfair" treatment that he thinks Terrell Owens received at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles and the NFL.

Sen. Specter Defends Terrell Owens -- Associated Press, 11-29

Sen. Arlen Specter accused the National Football League and the Philadelphia Eagles of treating Terrell Owens unfairly and said he might refer the matter to the antitrust subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs.

Specter said at a news conference Monday in Harrisburg it was "vindictive and inappropriate" for the league and the Eagles to forbid the all-pro wide receiver from playing and prevent other teams from talking to him. (Continued on site...)

Now that I actually pay taxes, I think I'm beginning to see why people get upset that a portion of every one of their paychecks goes to pay Sen. Waste-of-Time's salary.


Friday, November 11, 2005

DECISION 2005 RESULTS

Despite the small number of elections in 2005, the psychological significance of the two gubernatorial races is undeniable, at least in the short term. With low approval ratings due to a wide range of issues from Iraq to the response to Hurricane Katrina and skyrocketing oil prices, President Bush’s popularity and influence was on the line even though his name wasn’t on any ballot.

The real bellwether of the 2005 off-year election season was the Virginia gubernatorial race between Republican Jerry Kilgore and Democrat Tim Kaine. Many political analysts hailed Virginia as a so-called “red state,” one that Bush had carried by eight percentage points in 2000 – a result that was matched in 2004. In fact, Virginia hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964, voting for even the weakest of Republican candidates: George H. W. Bush in 1992 and Robert Dole in 1996.

It seems Virginia fits the mold of the quintessential red state; like a handful of Midwestern states, Virginia opted for Republican candidates at the presidential level since the era of Lyndon Johnson. Few states in the union show that brand of loyalty to one party over such a long period of time. And that’s exactly why both parties were keenly interested in Tuesday’s race: despite Republican presidential dominance in the state for 40 years, Kaine was headed for a photo finish with Kilgore as Election Day approached.

Should Kilgore, the early favorite, win the race, perhaps Bush wouldn’t be seen as a liability in 2006 after all. However, if Kaine won, Democrats could gain a bit of much-needed momentum and tout the President as being responsible for a weakening of his party base. On Election Day, the Democrats prevailed.

Kaine won 51.6 percent of the vote, 5.5 percentage points higher than Kilgore. The media chose sound bytes and simplicity over an objective look at Kaine’s victory, promptly saying that the election was a bad omen for Bush and Republican prospects in 2006. A few seasoned political analysts sought better explanations for Kaine’s victory, but the general buzz of the mainstream media was that a red state had suddenly gone blue.

Even the staunchly conservative Washington Times ran a front page article on Thursday holding Bush largely responsible for losses in Virginia. Opting not to evaluate possible weaknesses in their own campaigns, several Virginia Republicans including narrowly reelected delegate David Albo blamed the president’s slumping popularity for Democratic victories across the state.

In the short term, the Democratic victory in Virginia (as well as the unsurprising Democratic win in the New Jersey gubernatorial election) does look ominous for President Bush and the Republicans. Bush’s low approval numbers were evident even in reliably red Virginia, and his 11th hour campaign stop for Kilgore had no discernable effect, possibly even damaging the Republican candidate. But before the president can be held responsible for a new, blue Virginia, Kilgore’s campaign itself must be looked at for weaknesses.

Though Kilgore was the early frontrunner in the race, the election took a nasty turn in September when the Republican began running attack ads against Kaine. The ads, focused on issues like the death penalty, abortion and gas taxes, got the attention of voters in Virginia, but instead of rallying them against “liberal Tim Kaine,” they backfired on Kilgore. One especially harsh advertisement claimed that Kaine’s opposition to the death penalty would have even spared Adolph Hitler from execution.

Voters throughout the state rejected such unnecessary and insulting propaganda. The tried-and-true Republican tactics of labeling and grouping didn’t seem to matter when Election Day came; while Virginia almost certainly would not vote for a liberal, baby-killing, criminal-loving tax hiker, the majority did not associate Tim Kaine with such extremist rhetoric. Further damaging Kilgore’s chances were similar attack ads run by other Republican candidates across the state. The Democrats most certainly fought back, but in the end, Republican commercials were the more memorable – and the more repugnant.

Jerry Kilgore has one person to hold responsible for his defeat – himself. Poorly timed attacks caused the frontrunner to fall behind and eventually lose by over five points. Of course, that assessment in-and-of itself is an oversimplification of the race; issues and demographics most certainly played a role, but in the end, Kaine was not seen as the liberal demon that Kilgore made him out to be, and Kilgore’s aggressiveness cost him the governorship. (Even in his concession speech, Kilgore continued the “grouping” mentality, likening the election to a battle lost and the national split between “red” and “blue” as a war to be won.)

The media spent some time reviewing the attack ads and their effect on the Virginia election, but the trend on Election Night and the day following was to hold Bush’s poor national popularity responsible for the Republican defeat. The president is undeniably weak nationwide right now, but his performance at a national level simply cannot be the primary reason for a Republican defeat at the state level. Red and blue is a gross bastardization of the nation’s complex and multi-layered political landscape; a simplification that demeans the intelligence of voters and assumes a stereotypical voting behavior of each state at all levels.

Furthermore, Kilgore’s loss in Virginia does not mean wider Republican losses in 2006. While Kilgore’s failure is understood to be largely a result of voter rejection of negative tactics, Kaine’s victory is a result of not only his position in Virginia politics, but also the state’s electoral history.

Although the hype around the Democratic victories in Virginia and New Jersey seems to bode well for the minority party’s outlook for the short-term future, they really achieved nothing more than to hold onto governorships that were already in Democratic hands. The governorship of Virginia has been held by Mark Warner since 2002. Warner, who is on the list of potential Democratic presidential candidates for 2008, is an extremely popular figure in the state; Tim Kaine served as his lieutenant governor. (Democrat Jon Corzine was largely expected to win the New Jersey race, taking the reins from Acting Governor Richard Codey.)

Warner only served one term as Virginia’s governor due to strict term limits in the state, so Kaine was, by default, the incumbent candidate running as Warner’s protégé. Such popularity coupled with Kilgore’s negativity secured the state for Kaine. This so-called red state, already in blue hands, didn’t really change all that much.

Additionally, Virginia has a history of electing Democratic governors, despite the state’s red label. While Virginia was voting for every Republican presidential candidate from 1968 through 2004, it was electing Democrats to the governorship in 1981, 1985, 1989, 2001 and 2005 (all elections taking place during Republican presidencies).

One party’s victory in Virginia is also not an indicator of electoral success in the next, off-year election cycle. Republican James Gilmore’s strong victory in 1997 didn’t signal wider GOP gains in 1998 – the Republicans lost seats in the House. Democrat Mark Warner’s victory in 2001 didn’t foreshadow a GOP collapse in 2002 federal elections; instead, Republicans recaptured the Senate and made gains in the House.

Such diversity of votes in gubernatorial elections should not come as a shock. The current red-blue divide of the Electoral College hardly matches a similar red-blue map of governorships.

Eleven so-called red states – West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Iowa, Kansas, New Mexico, Arizona and Wyoming – all have Democratic governors. That accounts for over one-third of the 31 states won by President Bush in 2004. Though this red list accounts for Republican victories in 2004 only, many of the group have voted reliably Republican as long as Virginia has.

On the flip side, nine blue states – California, Hawaii, Minnesota, Maryland, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Vermont – have Republican governors. This is nearly half of the “blue states” carried by Senator John Kerry in 2004. Many of those states, especially the New England bloc, vote as reliably Democratic for president as Virginia does Republican.

Predicting national trends based on state-by-state performance is a poor way of reading political tea leaves. If gubernatorial elections were accurate predictions of larger national sentiment, the Electoral College would have been turned on its head long ago. While it is undeniable that President Bush is weak nationwide, Virginia simply is not an accurate indicator of possible trends in 2006.

Much can happen between now and Election Day 2006. President Bush may rebound significantly, enough so that Representatives and Senators campaigning on national issues can use him as an asset rather than fear him as a liability. But state-level politics is a different beast altogether; gubernatorial races in 2006 may well place people in their statehouses who are much different from who they choose to send to Washington, DC.


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