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The Snowball Effect

Republicans who had hoped that this year's almost relentless stream of bad news would be broken by a GOP victory either in the New Jersey or Virginia gubernatorial contests were disappointed again. As the Morton Salt slogan goes, "When it rains, it pours." These days, the Bush White House and the rest of the Republican Party are getting drenched, and no relief is in sight for them.

As Republican analysts were quick to point out, odd-year gubernatorial contests are rarely useful in predicting the outcome of the next year's congressional election. But regardless of whether people should or shouldn't read anything into this year's fairly predictable election results, the fact is that people will -- and that's what make the results important for 2006.

Especially when victories or losses fit into a broader pattern of events, the outcomes can contribute to a snowball effect. Tuesday's election results are most certainly accelerating the Democrats' momentum.

The fact is that the Northeast, particularly New Jersey, is trending Democratic. It's true that the heavy spending of Democratic Sen. Jon Corzine, who put about $45 million into his gubernatorial campaign, compared with Republican businessman Doug Forrester's $30 million, had a lot to do with the outcome. But that dollar disparity gives Republicans little comfort in their loss, since Corzine took 53 percent to Forrester's 44 percent. In Virginia, Democratic Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine beat former state Attorney General Jerry Kilgore by 6 points, 52 percent to 46 percent. By most accounts, Kaine was far more impressive as a candidate than Kilgore was, and Kaine definitely benefited from Democratic Gov. Mark Warner's 80 percent job-approval rating. Republicans can't take much solace from those factors, either.

And President Bush was of little help to Kilgore. Bush's job-approval rating in Virginia, a state he carried by 8 points just a year ago, is only 44 percent. The president's current unpopularity in the Old Dominion overrides all the GOP rationalizations about Kilgore's defeat.

Corzine outspent Forrester on television by an estimated 3-2. Just as important, Corzine's campaign poured millions of dollars into an absentee-ballot program and other get-out-the-vote efforts that Republicans conceded dwarfed their own efforts.

For much of the campaign, Corzine and Forrester debated their plans to cut property taxes, although polling taken last week indicated that voters did not think that either candidate would succeed in cutting them. Forrester also worked to tie Corzine to state Democrats and to allegations of corruption in state government.

Corzine, in turn, linked Forrester to Bush, who is very unpopular in the state. The president's job rating was 69 percent "fair/poor" in a late-October WNBC/ Marist survey.

The New Jersey contest turned particularly ugly in the final week, when a Forrester ad used a quote, which had first appeared in The New York Times, in which Corzine was criticized by his ex-wife. Corzine's campaign attacked the spot as "Bush-Rove smear tactics," and Forrester did not mount a strong defense of the commercial. The effort ended up backfiring.

In some respects, the ad's message was too subtle. It simply used the ex-wife's statement -- that Corzine had failed his family and would likely fail New Jersey -- against a black background. The ad neglected to make an explicit connection to the Forrester campaign's overall message that Corzine was part of the state's Democratic establishment and, thus, part of the problem.

In the end, Forrester had very few assets in the race; he was outspent, out-organized, and outmaneuvered. He was further hampered by having to swim against a partisan tide while carrying the weight of a very unpopular president.

In Virginia, Kaine staked his political fortunes on the success of outgoing Gov. Warner's administration. He campaigned often with Warner, who also appeared in many of his television ads. Kaine's message to voters was simple: If you are happy with the way things are going in the state, then vote for Kaine.

Kaine, a devout Catholic who opposes abortion and the death penalty but promises to enforce existing laws on both issues, worked early to inoculate himself from inevitable Republican attacks. The Kaine campaign went on the air early with ads on Christian and rural radio outlets that described Kaine's faith and values. By the time the Kilgore campaign hit Kaine on his opposition to the death penalty, voters were already aware of his views and the reasons for them.

Kilgore wasn't helped by the fact that one of his death-penalty ads was widely slammed. In the ad, a father whose son was murdered criticized Kaine's position by saying, "Tim Kaine says that Adolf Hitler doesn't qualify for the death penalty." Polling indicated voters thought Kilgore ran the more negative campaign and that his advertising played a big part in this view.

Kaine strategists credit his early effort, as well as their candidate's position on curbing growth in Northern Virginia, for their win. In fact, they note that Kaine carried Prince William and Loudoun counties -- two areas in Northern Virginia that Warner and Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry lost in 2001 and 2004, respectively.

Early analyses indicate that Kaine, whose base is in Richmond, outperformed Warner in Northern Virginia, which is his home: Kaine won the suburban, formerly Republican stronghold of Fairfax County with 60 percent of the vote.

Perhaps the most sobering result for Virginia Republicans is that the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, Leslie Byrne, a liberal, former one-term member of Congress, received 49 percent of the statewide vote. Under the most charitable interpretation for Republicans, 49 percent of the voters cast their ballot for lieutenant governor for someone they didn't know.

An even less convincing argument would be that 49 percent voted for a liberal because they wanted a liberal. In truth, the lieutenant governor's race was relatively low profile. Few voters knew much about either candidate, so the argument that a default Democrat got 49 percent is probably the most accurate assessment.

The Democrats' victory in the gubernatorial race also means that a pattern established in 1977 remains unbroken. In the last eight races for the governorship of Virginia, the party in the White House has lost the gubernatorial contest.

So what does this all mean? In terms of campaign strategies and tactics, an argument can certainly be made that over-the-top negative advertising -- by Forrester quoting Corzine's ex-wife, and by Kilgore on capital punishment -- not only didn't work, it backfired.

This election further corroborates my view that too many campaign consultants in both parties simply cannot pass up an enticing negative attack. These consultants have little feel for what will or will not work, and they often resort to creating negative ads because they are easier to craft than convincing positive ones.

For President Bush, the danger is that Election 2005 has pushed Republican senators and House members closer to the point of stampeding. Their willingness to break ranks with his administration has increased dramatically over the past month, compared with six months ago. And that willingness is likely to continue growing.

Among GOP lawmakers, the prevailing view now seems to be that Bush has appeared on the ballot for the last time, that their own names will be on the line next November, and that he will be of little or no help to them. He might even be a liability for some of them. So, they must do whatever they can to save their own seats.

The snowball rolls on.

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