Jerry Kilgore Made Two Big Mistakes

Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore made two big mistakes that probably cost him enough votes among his conservative base that propelled Democrat Tim Kaine to victory. But reading this morning’s Washington Post, the largest paper covering the vast Northern Virginia suburbs, where I live, you wouldn’t know what they were.

1) In Herndon, a town located in western Fairfax Country, which remarkably accounted for one in seven Virginia voters, an immigration debate raged earlier this year over a day-laborer center where, critics feared, illegal immigrations would be prone to gather. The question was this: Why should taxpayers foot the bill for a place benefiting illegal aliens—i.e. lawbreakers.

Kilgore had an opportunity to seize the issue—one that’s important to many Northern Virginians, being that they encounter the issue on a daily basis in one way or another. And don’t get me wrong, at first Kilgore did grasp the importance of the issue, calling into a local radio show to attack the Herndon day-laborer center.

But after the town board voted to build the place, Kilgore dropped the issue. It received almost no media attention, and therefore, was displaced by other issues (such as the death penalty and taxes) in the campaign.

It’s telling how Kilgore faded once the immigration issue was off the table. In fact, Robert Novak, writing in the Evans-Novak Political Report, cited this as Kilgore’s biggest strength in late August. Why then didn’t Kilgore run with it? He might have been afraid of being labeled a bigot, or he simply didn’t grasp the significance in voter-rich Northern Virginia.

2) Perhaps just as equally important, and more so for Kilgore’s base, was the Republican’s botched answers to questions about abortion during two debates. Kilgore, who like Kaine personally opposes abortion, refused to say if he would sign legislation criminalizing abortion if Roe v. Wade were overturned.

It was during the first debate moderated by NBC’s Tim Russert that Kilgore’s answer received wide play in the media. Kilgore, telling Russert he wouldn’t answer a hypothetical question, was further embarrassed when Russert followed up with another hypothetical question on taxes, which Kilgore enthusiastically answer. Russert, of course, pointed out the contrast.

Kilgore’s refusal to take a stand was just plain awful, and probably kept some “lazy voters”—a term Kilgore’s campaign coined to describe non-voters in this off-year election—home instead of casting a vote for the Republican. It also didn’t help that Kilgore, when given a second chance to answer the question at a later debate, botched it again.

Kilgore’s defeat will almost certainly be blamed on President Bush—perhaps even by Kilgore himself. But this was really about a candidate who failed to live up to high expectations since his election to attorney general in 2001.

Now it appears the GOP will set its sights on Lt. Gov.-elect Bill Bolling, whose strong performance and large margin of victory stands in stark contrast to that of other Republicans.