Depending on your partisan leanings, the 2005 elections were either a harbinger of a re-emerging Democratic majority or a mere blip on the political radar screen. Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean boasted that the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial elections “sent a powerful message that when Democrats stand up for what we believe in, we win.” Fred Barnes argued in The Weekly Standard that “there was no change, no earthquake. … Ignore anyone who tells you otherwise.”

Off-year elections are not the most reliable indicator of broader political trends. The 1993 Republican sweep prefigured the historic 1994 elections, but the results in 2001—which looked much like this year’s—failed to predict the GOP’s gains in 2002. “They’re next to useless for predicting what’s going to happen,” says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.

But these elections do make useful test cases for specific campaign strategies. In Virginia, Republican Jerry Kilgore followed the GOP’s standard red-state playbook: he pounded his Democratic opponent Tim Kaine as a soft-on-crime, tax-raising liberal. Each charge had at least some basis in Kaine’s record. Kilgore lost by six percentage points. Does Virginia show that swing voters are starting to tune out the perennial Republican wedge issues?

Kilgore tried almost all of them. In fact, as his spring 10-point lead slowly evaporated, his campaign turned in increasing desperation to taxes, guns, gay rights, crime, and finally illegal immigration in an effort to halt Kaine’s momentum. Kilgore’s strategists were sure they could beat Kaine’s education and transportation platform by painting the Democrat as too liberal for Virginia. They were wrong.

Perhaps the most famous example was the Kilgore campaign’s much-denounced death penalty ads. Relatives of murdered Virginians appeared in television spots denouncing Kaine for his opposition to capital punishment. One featured the wife of a slain policeman saying, “When Tim Kaine calls the death penalty murder, I find it offensive.” Another stated, “Tim Kaine says that Adolf Hitler doesn’t qualify for the death penalty.”

This line of attack didn’t seem as implausible at the time as it now appears in retrospect. The death penalty is supported by a strong majority in Virginia. Kaine had in the past called for a moratorium on executions and as a civil-rights lawyer had represented capital murder defendants. Law-and-order Republicans have beaten Democrats with much less.

Instead, even many capital-punishment supporters viewed the ads as a cheap shot. Kaine avoided playing to type in his response. He emphasized that his was a “faith-based opposition” to the death penalty, thus framing a liberal position in conservative religious terms, and that he would enforce the law. That’s a far cry from invoking the ACLU or coldly disputing the deterrent effect of executions in response to a hypothetical question about the murder of his wife.

As the race progressed, this became a familiar pattern. Kilgore would attack his Democratic rival from the right. On paper, Kaine should have been vulnerable. In practice, he was able to downplay his liberalism, play up his connection to popular Gov. Mark Warner, speak to religious voters about his Roman Catholic faith, and change the subject. After a while, Kilgore’s liberal-baiting began to look like an attempt to avoid talking about local issues.

Yet Kilgore had one issue at his disposal that mixed conservative ideological politics with local concerns—taxes. The GOP tax advantage stretches far beyond the red states. Since Michael Dukakis left office in 1991, Massachusetts has not had a single Democratic governor. Republicans represent only 13 percent of Massachusetts’s registered voters but they have elected three governors largely as a check against the Democratic legislature’s ability to raise taxes. No issue has driven as many upwardly mobile middle-class voters into Republican arms.

In 2004, Virginia enacted a record $1.5 billion tax increase. The Democratic incumbent signed it into law. As lieutenant governor, Kaine supported the increase. As a candidate, he continued to praise the tax hike as a tough decision that balanced the budget and improved the state’s bond ratings. Kilgore opposed raising taxes. It’s hard to imagine an issue better designed both to rally the Republican base and win over swing voters.

Except Kilgore’s message seemed to be a flop where it might have done him the most good. The swing areas of northern Virginia’s outer suburbs voted more heavily for the candidate that wanted to promote government services than the one who opposed raising taxes.

Kaine won 60 percent of the vote in Fairfax County, which had voted for George W. Bush in 2000 and only narrowly went for John Kerry in 2004. Kilgore underperformed Bush by 10 points in Loudoun County and five in Prince William County, enough to swing both to Kaine. Why did the tax issue fail in the exurbs?

Perhaps Kilgore’s own ambiguity on the issue was to blame. “He wanted to have his cake and eat it too,” says Virginia Club for Growth President Phil Rodokanakis. “He told the Chamber of Commerce he wouldn’t fight tax increase initiatives but told the conservative anti-tax people he was against the Warner tax increase.” “So many Republicans went along with the tax increase that the party lost its brand identity,” says former Virginia Republican Party chairman Pat McSweeney. “From pro-lifers to tax-cutters, Kilgore took conservative issue groups for granted,” argues Republican activist Dan Gray.

Ruy Teixeira argued in the New York Times that middle-class exurban voters are “tax-sensitive and concerned about government waste, but not ideologically anti-government.” They might balk at higher taxes in some cases, but not if there is a tangible payoff in terms of education, transportation, or health care. If the Democrats can use these issues to neutralize the Republicans’ tax trump card, it would have major implications.

This year it worked in two state referenda outside Virginia. In Colorado, voters suspended the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights for five years. They effectively raised their own taxes in order to increase education spending. Anti-tax activists were isolated as Republican Gov. Bill Owens, an erstwhile tax-cutter once hailed by National Review as the nation’s best governor, supported the suspension.

While education beat tax cuts in Colorado, transportation outdid taxes in Washington state. A ballot initiative to repeal a three-year, 9.5-cent-per-gallon increase in the gasoline tax failed. Voters preferred having the $8.5 billion revenue to fix local bridges and roads.

In both cases, the anti-tax vote was still substantial. The Colorado initiative passed with just 52 percent. Washingtonians defeated the gas-tax rollback with only 53 percent. But whenever voters opt to raise their own taxes, Republican operatives should take notice. Are taxes no longer the GOP’s premier wedge issue? Writing in The Weekly Standard, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam compared Reaganite Republicans who “view across-the-board tax cuts as a permanent ticket to political power” to “aging hippies who never quite got over Woodstock.”

Few Republican politicians seem ready to update. To the extent they read any national significance into the 2005 results, they blame the personalities at the head of the party more than the policies. “A lot of people want to say Republicans are having problems because of stands we take on specific issues,” Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) told reporters. “I’ve seen polls where that’s not the reason. The reason is we’re not governing.”

It wasn’t lost on GOP elected officials that President Bush’s last-minute campaign appearance with Kilgore—who up until the last 24 hours had been citing scheduling conflicts to stay out of the president’s shadow—didn’t do any good and may have made things worse in northern Virginia. Even long-shot candidates started pointing fingers. “If Bush’s numbers were where they were a year ago… I think we would have won on Tuesday,” complained Doug Forrester, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in New Jersey. Not once during his campaign did Forrester lead his Democratic opponent in the polls.
Other Republicans decided to revive long-simmering feuds between the party’s moderate and conservative wings. Congressman Charles Bass (R-N.H.) declared, “It’s time to govern from the middle.” Congressman Tom Davis (R-Va.) warned the Washington Post that GOP pro-lifers might antagonize suburbanites by pushing too hard for the reversal of Roe v. Wade.

Davis did, however, acknowledge voter “frustration over the war in Iraq,” getting closer to the source of his party’s woes. Even the Republican base is starting to turn against some of the GOP’s biggest priorities. A Diageo/Hotline poll found that 41 percent of Republicans believed the country was on the wrong track. Strong approval of Bush among Republicans was at its lowest level since the poll began, with Iraq listed as the top reason for disapproval. “Iraq is at the foundation of Bush’s problems,” says Sabato.

Yet the GOP’s problems may run deeper. Ten years after winning control of Congress, the Republican majority has become stagnant. The party’s candidates have tried to run on a platform that consists largely of warmed-over Contract With America agenda items and bashing Democrats, a message swing voters mostly find irrelevant. Iraq and Bush’s leadership in the war on terror briefly revived Republican fortunes. Faced with falling poll numbers on both fronts, the party finds itself adrift.

The GOP has gained electoral strength over the last 20 years by using conservative means to address pressing voter concerns. But a political party can’t hold power forever by trying to solve the problems of 1980 or 1994. If the Virginia governor’s race demonstrates anything of national significance, it shows that if Republicans forget this they can ridicule their opponents as liberals as much they want—and still lose.