Republican Questions Kaine’s Decision

Patrick McSweeney, former chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, writes this interesting take on Tim Kaine’s decision to debate independent candidate Russ Potts…

Tim Kaine, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, has decided to debate independent candidate Russ Potts head to head immediately after a Sept. 13 debate between Kaine and Republican candidate Jerry Kilgore. This will surely please the news media but isn’t a shrewd decision on Kaine’s part.

Kaine and Potts contend that the voters should hear all three candidates debate. Kilgore refuses to debate Potts unless two statewide polls show that support for Potts reaches at least 15 percent.

Kaine’s strategy in pushing to include Potts in debates is obvious. In a statement issued by the Kaine campaign announcing the Kaine-Potts debate, Kaine refers to Kilgore and Potts as “my Republican opponents.” He assumes that Kilgore and Potts are fighting for, and will split, the same Republican and Republican-leaning votes.

The damage that Potts can inflict upon Kilgore is, for the most part, already inflicted. What Kaine ignores is the potential Potts has to draw votes from Kaine.

Kaine has enhanced the Potts campaign more than he realizes. A head-to-head debate is apt to cause more erosion of support from Kaine than a three-way debate would. The presence of Kaine and Potts on the same stage without Kilgore will sharpen voters’ appreciation that Kaine is not the only alternative to Kilgore.

The reporting, the photographs and any television footage of the Kaine-Potts debate will highlight in the minds of voters the fact that Kaine and Potts are on one side, while Kilgore is their opponent. Regardless of their attacks on Kilgore during their debate, the overriding impression will be the competition between Kaine and Potts.

Why would Kaine call for a two-way debate with an independent who hasn’t yet shown support above 9 percent? The result is that Potts not only will get more exposure than he could hope to get on his own, but also will be treated as a serious contender. If Kaine thinks Potts is a worthy debate opponent, why shouldn’t voters assume that Potts is worthy of their consideration as a gubernatorial candidate? It will be too late in the closing weeks of this campaign for Kaine to alter this favorable image of Potts if and when Kaine discovers that Potts is drawing votes from the Kaine column.

Kaine has major problems with his base. Those who strongly favor tax increases and who oppose Kilgore’s social agenda have more in common with Potts than with Kaine. The Kaine-Potts debate will remind these voters that they have a choice.

In the 2001 gubernatorial campaign, Mark Warner was able to keep his base relatively intact as he battled his opponent, Mark Earley, for moderate support. Warner’s base had only one alternative (other than staying at home on Election Day). That alternative - Earley - never appealed to Warner’s base.

Potts is fighting for attention and respectability. Kaine is giving him both.

Even if Kaine and Potts secretly agree to refrain from attacking each other and to mount a joint attack on Kilgore during their separate debate, the event is unlikely to help Kaine. Potts has repeatedly and vigorously criticized both Kaine and Kilgore for pledging to oppose a tax increase for transportation. Potts has also staked out a position on abortion that is far more appealing to staunch pro-choice voters than is Kaine’s. Those differences can’t be sidestepped.

Potts hurts Kilgore more than Kaine so long as Potts is merely a gadfly. When support for Potts pushes him beyond that status, it is Kaine, not Kilgore, who loses votes.

McSweeney, who practices law in Richmond, is former chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia. Send e-mail to [email protected]


5 Responses to “Republican Questions Kaine’s Decision”

  1. George Phillies Says:

    The truth is apparent: The reason the Republican is writing this is that they having polling data showing the opposite of what he clamiis, namley that Potts is going to take votes from Kilgore, and the more publiclity he gets the more votes he takes.

  2. Tim West Says:

    That’s right.

  3. Austin Cassidy Says:

    I think the most interesting idea, and probably the truth of it is… even if this hurts Kilgore a little bit and help Kaine a little bit, it’s going to help Potts a LOT.

    It’s going to be a STEEP climb, but I wonder if he might be able to win an upset in this one. It would be incredible if he did.

  4. NewFederalist Says:

    Austin- do you really believe Potts has a chance to win? From what I have read about this race he has two chances… slim and none. (And slim just left town!)

  5. Austin Cassidy Says:

    I think the debate could maybe give him a much needed spark. I think Kilgore was stupid NOT to debate him… and it’ll show.

    And in the end, I’ll go with slim. Very slim, in fact… but crazier things have happened. He’s running the right kind of campaign so far.

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