Bob Holsworth on the 2009 GOP Strategy: Attack Kaine

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

With no accomplishments of their own to brag about, Virginia Republicans have come up with a positive, forward-looking, strategy for the 2009 elections: attack Tim Kaine. According to Professor Bob Holsworth, here's what the Republicans are thinking:

1. "Tim Kaine is no Mark Warner, at least in terms of his job approval numbers."
2. "[T]he requirements of Kaine’s position as head of the DNC provides them with a genuine opening in the Virginia context."
3. "[T]he state budget situation and the continuing economic uncertainty will make it more difficult for democrats to continue to claim the mantle of fiscal responsibility."
4. "[Creigh] Deeds won’t be able to waltz to victory in November simply by reminding voters that he is first cousin to the Warner-Kaine political family."

Let's examine these briefly.

On point #1, the latest SurveyUSA poll has Mark Warner at an incredible 65%-28% (+37 points) approval/disapproval rating. This compares to 53%-40% (+13 points) for Tim Kaine (note: Jim Webb's at 48%-36%, or +12 points, about the same as Kaine, and Barack Obama's at 59%-36%, or +23 points). So, yes, in terms of approval ratings, the GOP is correct that Mark Warner is by far the most popular politician in Virginia, and that although Tim Kaine is popular, he's not at Warner's stratospheric levels (and never has been). The bottom line here is that I can't blame the GOP for trying to go after Tim Kaine, when Mark Warner and Barack Obama are both polling higher, but I'm dubious as to how effective this strategy will be. In fact, I'd say there's a definite risk that having less popular politicians (Jim Gilmore? George Allen? Dick Cheney?) attack a more popular politician (Tim Kaine?) while Democrats have two super-popular politicians (Warner and Obama) on their side defending Kaine could backfire. But by all means, let's see how this one plays out; go for it, Virginia GOP! :)

On point #2, I think there might be a bit of potential there, given how easy it is for Republicans to demagogue complex issues like health care or climate change, but I'm dubious about whether this really works for Republicans. The bottom line is this: to defeat an "incumbent," which in a way Creigh Deeds is (he's the heir to Warner/Kaine), you have to convince voters both why they shouldn't vote for the "incumbent" and also why they should replace the "incumbent" with yourself. In this case, I'm highly dubious that Republicans will be able to convince Virginia voters that Creigh Deeds brings all the "bad" (e.g., the horrors of high-quality health care for all Americans or of a new and vibrant clean tech economy) without any of the "good" (the perceived successes of the "Warner/Kaine" brand). Again, there's backfire potential here as well, particularly if Republicans simply end up reinforcing the (correct) popular perception that they are the "Party of No", with no ideas or positive vision of their own. Again, we'll see how this part of the strategy plays out, but right now I simply don't see it working out well for Republicans.

On point #3, I think it's definitely worth debating which party has worked hard to keep our AAA bond rating (hint: Mark Warner and Tim Kaine) and which party has tried its darndest to screw it up (hint: Jim Gilmore). I also think it's worth discussing which party has caused the economic downturn we currently find ourselves in (hint: George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Tom DeLay, etc.), since it's that economic downturn which is 90% responsible for Virginia's current fiscal problems. We can also talk about which party came up with the idea of killing the estate tax, costing Virginia nearly $150 million per year in lost revenues in order to benefit a few hundred super-rich families (hint: it wasn't the party with the donkey symbol). It will also be interesting to see how Virginians react when they here Bob McDonnell wax rhapsodic about the wonders of Bush-o-Nomics and turning down economic stimulus money (aka, our own tax dollars coming back to help us in Virginia). This should be fun.

On point #4, I agree that Creigh Deeds won't be able to "waltz to victory in November" no matter what he does. The fact is that Virginia is a highly competitive, "purple" state, and Bob McDonnell is a skillful politician with gazillions of dollars being thrown at him by national Republicans (who are desperate for a victory somewhere, anywhere). However, if Republicans think that in a few months they're going to be able to tarnish the Warner/Kaine brand name and run against a highly popular president, simply by arguing "Creigh=Tim and Barack", I think they're deluding themselves. It's true that in 2005-2008, we had a good degree of success tying Virginia Republicans to the "spoiled dog food" national Republican brand, and I can see why Virginia Republicans might want to try the same in 2009. The only problem with this strategy is polls like this one, which have the national Republican Party at a horrendous 25%-70% approval/disapproval level (MINUS 45 points!), while the national Democratic Party is at 49%-43% (+6 points). Can MINUS 45 beat PLUS 6 in '09? We'll see in the next few months here in Virginia, but if that's the best the Republicans got, I'm not too worried.