Midway through Virginia Lieutenant Governor Tim Kaine's presentation–cum–slide show, a tour de force on education policy in the state where Democrat Kaine is running for governor in November's upcoming election, a slide like no other abruptly appears on the screen. It shows mestizo peasant children in a barren room clustering around some young Yanqui -- bearded, hair flowing in all directions, gaunt as a wraith. Kaine -- the very model of middle-class, middle-aged professional decorum -- beams at the crowd. “That's me,” he says. The crowd erupts in laughter.
In his early 20s, Kaine took a year off from Harvard Law School to do missionary work in Honduras, where he ended up as principal of a vocational school. The image is meant both to underscore his religious convictions and his commitment to education, which is the centerpiece of his campaign to succeed Mark Warner, the popular Democratic governor who is term-limited out of office at year's end.
Kaine has been stumping the commonwealth -- on this evening, he's in the Prince William County Supervisors' meeting room, about 40 miles south of Washington -- on a platform of universal preschool for 4-year-olds, a program that would cost roughly $300 million. “We know that 90 percent of brain growth occurs by the time a child is 5,” he tells the audience of largely white professionals. “This is something that we've only recently discovered.”
Kaine has embarked on what Michael Singer, an aide to Warner, terms a test of “whether the Warner model can be sustained.” That model entails spending a lot of time in the reddest of this red state's regions, affirming an affinity not only for their culture but for what Singer calls “the more practical issues of economic development, health care, and especially education, targeted to less-well-off kids in rural areas.”
This is no small test, because what's really at stake is the question of whether even non-national Democrats can win in the South. After the red-state debacle of the John Kerry campaign, Democrats nationally are paying increased attention to people like the politically savvy Warner, who persuaded the state's Republican General Assembly to raise taxes and who, in his final year in office, has a stunning 74-percent approval rating. Kaine, an attorney who was mayor of Richmond before his election as lieutenant governor, has understandably hitched his star to Warner's, and in the week following Labor Day, the two campaigned together in the hill towns along the West Virginia border. They stumped through Alleghany County, where Kerry won 44.5 percent of the vote but where Warner, in his 2001 election, had pulled down 59 percent. And in Alleghany, as throughout the commonwealth, Kaine hammered on what Singer calls the state's “new Democratic message: kids.”
Even as Kaine links himself to Warner, his Republican opponent, former state Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, clings to Virginia's most popular Republican, Senator (and former Governor) George Allen. Like Allen, Kilgore is more anti-taxer than cultural jihadist, distancing himself from “Intelligent Design” by affirming allegiance neither to science nor religion but to Allen. “I support Virginia's Standards of Learning,” Kilgore said at a Virginia Bar Association forum. “And in Virginia's Standards of Learning, we focus on the science, and I continue to support the Standards of Learning, because the standards were created during Governor Allen's tenure as governor.”
Warner's successes -- which include raising the gas tax and sales tax, leaving corporate taxes unchanged, lowering the grocery tax, cutting income taxes for low-income residents, and boosting spending on schools and roads -- have put Kilgore in a bit of a bind. Fully 57 percent of Virginians, in recent polls, support Warner's tax increases.
Kilgore is attacking Kaine as a cultural liberal. But Kaine, a devout Catholic, opposes both the death penalty and abortion and pledges to enforce the state's death-penalty law and not to criminalize choice. He's against gay adoption rights and late-term abortions, and, if anything, seemed almost relieved when the state's NARAL chapter declined to endorse him. (A third candidate, state Senator Russ Potts, is a renegade Republican who's pro-choice, pro–gay adoption, and anti-spending, but he's expected to finish in the low single-digits.)
The rapid extension of the Washington metropolitan area into greater and greater swaths of Virginia is slowly making the state less conservative and Republican. George W. Bush carried it in 2004 with 54 percent, while he carried Georgia -- a somewhat comparable state because of Atlanta's presence -- with 58 percent. The race is rated a toss-up, but Kaine's emphasis on education may give him the edge.
Meanwhile, across the country in California, Democrats are embroiled in a fierce campaign to defeat four measures that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has directly or indirectly placed on a November special-election ballot. And while the new immigrant Latino voters of California may not at first glance have much in common with rural Virginia whites, California Democrats hope to defeat Schwarzenegger's initiatives with pretty much the same pitch that Kaine is making in Virginia: putting more resources into schools.
Each of Schwarzenegger's ballot measures is intended to shift power away from Democrats and their leading supporters, public employee unions most especially. One measure, Proposition 76, eliminates the state's statutory Proposition 98 requirement to devote at least 40 percent of its general fund to K-12 education and gives the governor unilateral power to cut spending in midyear if revenues look skimpy. A second would subject the state to a mid-decade redistricting. A third would extend the probation period before public-school teachers get tenure from two years to five. And the fourth, Proposition 75 -- likely to produce a $100 million donnybrook between unions and business interests -- would prohibit public-employee unions from spending their funds on electoral activities without prior written permission from their individual members.
The state's public-sector unions -- dominated by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the California Teachers Association, which together have more than 1 million members in-state -- have waged a concerted campaign against the proposals. Gale Kaufman, the unions' campaign consultant, says that the advertising not just for Proposition 76 but also for the union-busting Proposition 75 will focus on education, because its effect would be to silence the state's leading advocate for education spending.
“Defunding education is the third rail in California politics,” says Kaufman. “It's a huge issue with voters, a huge issue with Latino voters. Why did anyone think these were winnable issues?” Proposition 76 most certainly isn't; in the latest Field Poll, it's trailing by a 65 percent to 19 percent margin. Proposition 75, by contrast, is leading by 55 percent to 32 percent, but a similar initiative in 1998 had an even larger lead at a comparable point in that campaign, and eventually went down to defeat.
Schwarzenegger's mind-boggling collapse in popularity is the other thing the Democrats have going for them. In February, according to the Field Poll, 56 percent of Californians were inclined to give him a second term, with 42 percent disinclined. This September, those figures were reversed: Just 36 percent favored a second term, with 56 percent opposed. Schwarzenegger's fall can be attributed primarily to his hugely unsuccessful war on public-employee unions, beginning with his failed proposal to substitute 401(k)s for pensions (which would have eliminated survivor benefits for widows and orphans of police and firefighters), proceeding to his attempt to reduce the nurse-staffing requirements for hospitals, and concluding with his reneging on a pledge to restore education funding. The discovery that Schwarzenegger was making $8 million from bodybuilding magazines that depended on nutritional-supplement advertising -- after he'd vetoed stricter regulations on such supplements -- convinced Californians that he was just one more corrupt pol. And his insistence on calling November's special election as a way to work around the General Assembly has plainly outraged voters who did not wish to be subjected to another barrage of campaign advertising.
And therein lies the challenge for Schwarzenegger's opponents. “My fear is that voters will express their dissatisfaction with the special [election] by staying home,” says Dean Tipps, director of the SEIU's California state council. “We need them to express their outrage by voting ‘no.'”
If they do, it will be partly because they, like the swing voters of Virginia, support the Democrats' commitment to education. We'll know in November if the party of bread and butter and school books (and, perhaps, the party of better flood management) can prevail in both blue states and red.
Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of The American Prospect.