Virginia's lesson for the Democrats: stick to center and avoid fringe groups

Republican Edward S. DeBolt has seen the enemy, and they look a lot like . . . Republicans. Mr. DeBolt, a political consultant, devised strategy for the GOP candidate for governor, Wyatt Durrette, in last month's elections in Virginia. Mr. Durrette lost. But it was no ordinary defeat, in the view of some politicians, both Democrats and Republicans. This was something special.

In winning, Virginia's Democrats achieved three things where others have failed.

First, they avoided cozying up to all those special-interest groups, like labor unions and those who are pro-choice on abortion.

Second, they did everything they could to fracture Virginia's Republican Party by splitting conservatives and moderates.

Third, they wrapped their arms around the political center, and wouldn't let go.

It worked. And the results have sent a small tremor through Republican ranks across the United States.

DeBolt, president of the DCM Group, a consulting firm in Arlington, Va., had a front-row seat for the battle and concedes that the Democrats ran a first-rate show. But Republicans should not overdramatize it, he says.

Even so, the Democratic victory here was seen as crucial. The party is looking for ways to counter the next Republican offensive, which GOP officials have dubbed, ``The Reagan Revolution, Part II.''

Republicans are hoping to grab governorships (they now have only 16), state legislatures, and county courthouses. All these would be stepping stones to taking control of the House of Representatives in 1992.

Democrats, staggered by their 49-state loss in the Reagan-Mondale election, are searching for ways to fight back. Virginia may have provided some of the answers.

One reason is that Virginia highlighted a GOP weakness. If the noisy, demanding right wing of the party, led by such conservatives as the Rev. Jerry Falwell, can be split away from the larger Republican center, the result can wreak all sorts of damage.

It also shows Democrats are getting smarter.

To DeBolt's chagrin, these Democrats -- 1985-style -- talk like Republicans, walk like Republicans, and look like Republicans. And they win.

Despite an all-out GOP effort, including a visit from President Reagan, Virginia Democrats swept the races for governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general.

DeBolt's Republican candidate, Durrette, managed to narrow the gap with Democrat Jerry Baliles as the race came to an end. But it wasn't enough.

What happened? Have the Democrats found a new secret victory formula? Is it something they could package and sell across the United States in 1986 -- and 1988?

Well, even liberal Democrats, such as national party chairman Paul Kirk, have taken note. Mr. Kirk told reporters at breakfast the other day that Virginia showed that Democrats can win if they emphasize issues of broad, common interest, rather than narrow ones.

Earlier, Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., the Republican national chairman, had warned his party's governors that GOP hopes across the country could be dashed next year if other Democrats follow Virginia's lead.

DeBolt, a veteran of many campaigns, explains what happened. And what Republicans can do about it.

There were no new tricks in the Democratic strategy, he says. But the lessons of Virginia could give Democrats a running start for 1986 and '88. He says the Democratic victory here had two key elements.

Democrats, led by their incumbent governor, Charles Robb, played good old-fashioned moderate Southern Democratic politics. They grabbed the political center where most voters are and carefully steered clear of liberal activists such as labor unions.

Republicans allowed the right wing, led by the Rev. Mr. Falwell and former Gov. Mills Godwin, to dominate strategy for too long. By September, the Republicans were too far behind to recover. A quarter-million Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, unimpressed by the GOP campaign, failed to vote.

Political insiders considered both candidates to be moderates. But the public view was less clear-cut.

Republican Durrette found himself linked in Democratic TV ads with Mr. Falwell -- a distinct minus in Virginia politics. The image hit home. Meanwhile, Democrat Baliles went all-out with TV ads and joint appearances to become closely associated in the public mind with popular, middle-of-the-road Governor Robb.

One of the shrewdest moves by Democrats, DeBolt says, was to avoid any association with the party's left wing. And that, he adds, took courage. DeBolt explains:

Baliles ``quietly passed the word to the AFL-CIO that he did not want their endorsement. Very, very smart in a state that doesn't like AFL-CIO. . . . Later, he made every effort to make sure he was not encumbered with [pro-choice] abortion group support, and he wasn't encumbered with . . . some of the environmentalists who cause trouble.''

There's little doubt that if other Democrats copy what happened here, it will make the GOP's job much harder, DeBolt says. Yet what happened here is not that new. Democratic leaders merely returned their party to its roots among millions of conservative and moderate Democrats. Those Democrats have often been ignored since the Vietnam war as the party leadership tried to mollify activist liberals. Conservatives in the party turned to the GOP, at least in presidential elections.

The battle will now be over the center, where most votes are, DeBolt says. This means Republicans, just as Democrats did in Virginia, will have to say ``no'' to the more radical elements in their party.

Another DeBolt candidate in Virginia, US Sen. John Warner, did that, and got 70 percent of the vote in his last election. ``We did not cozy up to the Falwells,'' DeBolt says. ``We retained our independence on many issues that revolved around race. . . .''

``You need the courage to confront those people,'' DeBolt says. ``If they say, `I'm not going to support you,' then say, `Sayonara.' . . . It's not easy to tell your friends to take a walk [but] until the Republican Party has the courage to tell its splinter groups that they can't dominate the entire animal . . . we're going to continue in that rightward, reactionary direction.'' Second of two articles. The first ran Dec. 13.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.