On the morning of September 11, Virginia's Republican gubernatorial nominee, Mark Earley, was sitting in a hotel conference room in Richmond, meeting with his political strategists. In the midst of reviewing his campaign's game plan for the race's eight-week homestretch, one of Earley's consultants—who was participating in the meeting from his own office via telephone—interrupted the proceedings to report the horrible scenes he was witnessing on his television. Over the speakerphone, to the now hushed room, the consultant narrated the unfolding events, culminating with the gasp: "Oh my God, the second tower is gone." With that, Earley promptly ordered his campaign to suspend operations: Appearances were canceled; fund-raisers featuring Vice President Cheney and President Bush were called off; TV and radio ads were pulled from the air. Earley's Democratic opponent, Mark Warner, did the same.
But, after a few days, Earley and Warner returned to the stump and their ads returned to the air. At first the restarted campaigns were nearly identical: Both candidates ran patriotic, flag-waving ads and rolled out new anti-terrorism and emergency management plans. It wasn't long, though, before the two took on decidedly different tones. While Warner continued to acknowledge the events of September 11, he returned to the issues—primarily education and the state budget—that he'd campaigned on before the attacks. Earley, by contrast, talked about almost nothing except September 11. Pronouncing that "public safety is the most important and primary responsibility at every level of government," he touted his three and a half years as the state's attorney general and his ten years in the state senate. He proclaimed that his party affiliation—the same, of course, as President Bush's and Virginia's current governor (and Republican National Committee chairman), Jim Gilmore—was now a crucial asset, since "[w]e need a team of consistency in these troubled times. I don't believe now is any time to be shifting in midstream, at a time of national crisis." He even gave the typical "Democrats are tax-and-spenders" charge a 9/11 twist, declaring, "In these uncertain times, families are worried about their financial security," a security Warner would put "at risk."
Of course no politician running for office this November can ignore the events of September 11. And none of them—from the New Jersey gubernatorial candidates to the New York mayoral hopefuls to aspirants for municipal office around the country—has. But most, like Warner, have limited themselves primarily to expressing bipartisan support for the administration before returning to their original campaign themes. (These are, after all, candidates for state and local office.) But Earley has tried to turn the terrorist attacks into a partisan wedge issue. So, even as officeholders around the country are trying to allay public fears, Earley is stoking them for political gain. The good news is that, so far, it's not working.
EVEN BEFORE SEPTEMBER 11 Earley's campaign had been notable for its sleaziness. Faced with a stridently centrist, multimillionaire businessman as his Democratic opponent, Earley had resorted to a variety of smear tactics. He questioned Warner's business acumen by pointing to the four ultimately unsuccessful companies that one of Warner's venture capital funds had supported. Never mind that Warner has made enough successful investments to amass a $200 million fortune. As for Warner's moderate views, Earley simply distorted them. One mailing sent out by the Virginia GOP in August lumped in Warner with two other, more liberal, Democrats seeking statewide office, declaring that the three "have extreme liberal views on issues ranging from higher taxes [and] gay marriages to ending the death penalty." But Warner has announced his opposition to higher taxes and same-sex marriage, and he supports capital punishment. The same flyer declared that Warner—who is so pro-Second Amendment that the National Rifle Association has thus far stayed neutral in the race—"supports new gun control laws."
Despite the smears, Warner remained in the lead: A pre-Labor Day poll in The Washington Post found him trouncing Earley by eleven points. But then came September 11. Earley's aides insist that their candidate is not exploiting the terror attacks. But Anne Kincaid, an Earley strategist, acknowledges that the attacks have been politically beneficial. "It's certainly helped highlight Mark Earley's stellar fourteen-year record of being a leader in public safety in Virginia, and being a leader in keeping the financial security of Virginians intact," she says.
That "highlighting" has involved plenty of work by the candidate. Consider Earley's campaign appearance last week in the Shenandoah Valley, where he addressed a Harrisonburg Rotary Club luncheon. As the Rotarians filed into the banquet hall, a campaign worker handed out glossy flyers that bore Earley's new, post-9/11 slogan, "Because Some Jobs are too Important"—a not-so-subtle dig at Warner, who has never held elected office.
In his speech Earley framed his entire candidacy in alarmist, post-9/11 terms. First he declared that it is "an absolute and immediate priority for the next governor of Virginia that we focus on the safety and security of our citizens." After all, he noted ominously, Virginia, with its military installations and high-tech companies (not to mention its "roads, tunnels, bridges, [and] ports"), is a "target-rich state" for terrorists. Schools too were now a matter of urgent concern. "We have focused on school safety before from the threat of a renegade child or a renegade person in the community," Earley said, "but we're going to have to look at it in a broader perspective now in this international war on terrorism." And, of course, Earley cast his efforts to keep taxes low as an integral part of this war as well. "On September  our economy was attacked," he explained. "We saw the stock market plunge six hundred points in one day, a drop of eighteen percent in the first ten days, we had over two thousand people laid off in Northern Virginia because of the closing of Reagan National Airport.... [W]e've got to make sure that we stimulate this economy. We have a plan to invest in transportation, to invest in higher education, without raising taxes."
BUT THE ROTARIANS didn't buy it. When it came time for the question-and-answer session, they ignored virtually everything Earley had said and asked instead about smart-growth policies and whether Virginia's junior senator, George Allen—who introduced the candidate—could coach the woeful Redskins. Earley seemed to brighten when one Rotarian began his question by saying, "In regards to the `Greatest Generation'"—which Earley had mentioned in his speech—but the candidate turned downcast when the Rotarian wanted to talk about health care costs for seniors. (Before Earley's speech, I had asked a handful of Rotarians whether they thought the Virginia governor's job had been changed by the September 11 attack. All said no.)
It's not hard to figure out why Earley's fear-mongering didn't work: Out in the bucolic Shenandoah Valley, September 11 and the war on terrorism seem a world away. And even in Northern Virginia, where dense suburbs and proximity to Washington presumably create greater anxiety about terrorism, Earley's scare tactics probably won't work, since those same demographics give Warner a big edge. Indeed while polls show the governor's race has narrowed since September 11—and one poll actually puts it at a statistical dead heat—most give Warner a comfortable five- to nine-point lead. Even worse for Earley, his campaign was dealt a cruel blow late last month, when the Virginia Professional Fire Fighters—which represents some of the firefighters who responded to the attack at the Pentagon—threw their support behind Warner. Evidently the heroes of September 11 don't want it exploited for political gain either.
This article originally ran in the October 29, 2001 issue of the magazine.