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Sending a Message

Odd-year gubernatorial elections have a decidedly mixed record of foreshadowing the results of the next year's federal elections.

Some have been uncanny in their predictive value; others have been no help at all.

This year, the New Jersey gubernatorial contest between Democratic Sen. Jon Corzine and GOP businessman Doug Forrester is relatively competitive, but most observers agree that Corzine has the advantage. The gubernatorial election in Virginia is much more likely to be the banner race of the year.

The Virginia race is much closer than the New Jersey one, and it arguably will provide better clues about what will happen in 2006. This year, it is unfortunate for Democrats that Old Dominion governors cannot serve two terms. Their incumbent, Mark Warner, is sporting a 76 percent job-approval rating, and 65 percent of Virginians say their state is heading in the right direction, according to a September Washington Post survey. Especially given that Virginia tends to lean Republican by some 5 to 7 percentage points, Warner's standing starkly contrasts with President Bush's job-approval rating there -- just 47 percent.

Democrats are hoping that their gubernatorial nominee, Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine, will benefit from Warner's popularity and that Bush's weakness in the state will erase the advantage that former state Attorney General Jerry Kilgore would otherwise enjoy simply by being the GOP nominee.

Nevertheless, Republicans are banking on the fact that their party wins most statewide races in Virginia without much difficulty. The GOP hopes to capitalize on Kaine's opposition to the death penalty, which two-thirds of Virginians support. Kaine handles the difficult issue by saying that he is Catholic, is "pro-life" on both abortion and the death penalty, and will support enforcement of the existing laws of Virginia despite his personal convictions.

In both late July and mid-September, Mason-Dixon Opinion Research polls for the Richmond Times-Dispatch put Kilgore and Kaine in a statistical dead heat: Kaine was a single point ahead, 38 percent to 37 percent, in July, and Kilgore was 1 point ahead in September, 41 percent to 40 percent. A high proportion of African-Americans were undecided both times; they are likely to break heavily in Kaine's favor.

The Kaine campaign has released a Benenson Strategy Group poll of 500 likely voters taken September 13-14 that showed the race essentially tied -- with Kaine up by 1 point, 40 to 39 percent. That poll was conducted by a Democratic firm for the Democratic candidate, the GOP offered up no poll to refute it. An early-September Washington Post poll put Kilgore ahead by 7 points among most-likely voters and up 4 points among all registered voters.

Why should the Virginia race capture the attention of political junkies living in the other 49 states or the District of Columbia? Here's one reason: In the seven Virginia gubernatorial contests since 1977, the party holding the White House lost every time.

In 1977, the year after Democrat Jimmy Carter won the White House, Virginians tapped Republican John Dalton to be governor. In 1981, the year after Ronald Reagan won the presidency, Democrat Chuck Robb won the governorship. In 1985, a year after Reagan's landslide re-election, another Democrat, Gerald Baliles, won in Virginia. Democrat Doug Wilder was elected in 1989, the year after George H.W. Bush's victory. Even though the elder Bush carried the state in the 1992 presidential election, Bill Clinton won the presidency; and in 1993, the GOP's George Allen picked up the governorship. In 1997, the year after Clinton was re-elected, Republicans held on to the governorship, with James Gilmore's win. Finally, in 2001, Democrat Mark Warner won, the year after George W. Bush had carried Virginia by 8 points and won the presidency.

When something happens seven times in a row, there's usually a reason. The pattern here appears to be that Virginia voters use their gubernatorial races to express displeasure with the current occupant of the White House. It is also worth noting that Republican presidential nominees' margins of victory in Virginia have shrunk in recent years, as moderate Northern Virginia's population has grown faster than the state as a whole.

None of this means that Kaine is sure to beat Kilgore. This contest is likely to be a very close race, and Democratic candidates rarely have an easy ride in Virginia. But right now, Kaine appears to have erased Kilgore's lead, to have plenty of forces working in his favor, and to have the momentum.

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