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The battle over the political base

Senate candidates focus on motivating the party faithful

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Print this page by Robert Burke

Editor’s note: Former Sen. George Allen was unavailable for an interview for this story, according to representatives from his campaign.

For most of the campaign for Virginia’s open U.S. Senate seat, the two candidates, both of whom are former governors, couldn’t talk enough about creating jobs and boosting the economy.

Democrat Tim Kaine has been touting his record as a manager of a business-friendly state who could work across partisan divides. Republican George Allen, meanwhile, has talked of cutting taxes and government regulation.

Certainly there are plenty of places in Virginia looking for economic growth, even though the state’s overall unemployment rate is relatively low at 5.9 percent. But despite the campaign’s heavy emphasis on jobs and what the government should or shouldn’t do to support business growth, there might not be much traction on business issues. There are larger forces at play in this highly polarized campaign ― namely, the presidential election and control of the Senate. Polls through late summer showed the Virginia Senate race to be a near deadlock.

“It’s really a battle over the base,” says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. This is one election that likely will not be won by the last-minute decisions of undecided voters but by getting a good turnout from the party faithful, he says.

Getting the political base stirred up shouldn’t be too hard for either camp, Sabato believes, because of how voters feel about President Barack Obama and his GOP opponent, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Some voters might split the ticket, voting Democratic in one race and Republican in another, he says, but the partisan heat this year is high. Republicans “hate Obama so much,” Sabato says. “And, of course, on the Democratic side it’s just as visceral against Romney … Obama’s first term has polarized the race, and that’s just going to flow down the ballot.”

NewsAllen spent much of the summer at campaign events trying to link Kaine to the pending automatic cuts in defense spending, a threat put in place by a 2011 agreement reached after the standoff between congressional Republicans and the White House over raising the debt ceiling. (See related story on page 20.) That agreement ― the Budget Control Act of 2011 ― required $1.2 trillion in cuts, about half in defense, if a congressional “supercommittee” couldn’t come up with its own budget reductions. The committee failed, and so the cuts are the next step, starting in January unless a new deal emerges.

Allen suggests that, since Kaine supported the debt ceiling agreement, the Democrat also favors defense cuts and the potential job losses they can cause in Virginia. Kaine, however, points out the debt ceiling deal also was supported by some top Virginia Republicans, among them Gov. Bob McDonnell and Rep. Eric Cantor, the House majority leader.
Midterm congressional elections in 2010 showed that most voters in Virginia and elsewhere were unhappy with the country’s direction. Republicans picked up 63 seats in the House of Representatives, and three Virginia Democrats were among their victims. The Allen campaign hopes to build upon that angst.

In general, Allen supports cutting federal taxes on businesses, making the tax code “more simple and fair for businesses and individuals” and reining in “unaccountable regulators,” such as the Environmental Protection Agency. Plus, Allen has said he’d support a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget and a repeal of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, which many business organizations opposed.

Kaine’s campaign talks about reducing regulations, too, especially rules that might restrict the flow of capital from community banks to small businesses. But Kaine also calls for more spending for things like transportation infrastructure and higher education. The Democrat says he had held more than 70 “business roundtables” around the state by mid-August, and that his campaign platform reflects what he heard from businesspeople.

NewsKaine also supports Obamacare. That law includes a tax credit for health-care expenses that small businesses incur. Kaine says that provision is popular, but businesspeople are still worried. “We have to figure out a way to reduce costs,” he says.

Countering Allen’s attacks on Obamacare, Kaine points to Allen’s support of the 2003 expansion of Medicare to include prescription drug costs. That law includes what Kaine calls “a very unbusinesslike provision,” which prohibits the federal government from using its buying power to negotiate lower prices from drugmakers.

Outside groups have gotten involved in the Senate race. An analysis by the Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP) revealed that by September independent groups had bought more than $37 million in ads for campaigns in the state, including the Senate race. That amount represents more than a tenfold increase from he amount of outside money spent in Virginia during the 2008 presidential race. VPAP says conservative or pro-Republican outside groups have spent three times more money on ads as liberal or pro-Democratic groups.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example, has run television ads saying that “Tim Kaine would derail Virginia’s recovery.”  Kaine dismisses the attacks, saying the ad might be more effective if the two candidates weren’t already well-known around the state. “People know me, they know my opponent,” he says.

Dan Allen, a senior adviser to the Allen campaign, says both camps face a tough task reaching voters because the presidential campaigns are pouring money and people into Virginia. “It’s harder and harder to cut through and really deliver a message” to undecided voters who might be swayed in the final weeks, he says. The candidates will have to close the deal themselves. “The more personalized you can make things, the better off you’ll be,” he says. “It’s just a matter of trying to get [Allen] around the state as much as possible.”

One question arising from the Senate contest is how much either candidate really wants the job. “I don’t think either one of them wanted to be in this position in their careers,” says Mark Rozell, professor of public policy at George Mason University. “George Allen, I thought, was kind of bored in the Senate” during his one term, which ended when he was narrowly defeated in 2006 by Democrat Jim Webb. Kaine had said during his term as governor he had no plans to run for any other public office. He admits that he “really had to grapple with that” question before deciding to run. Webb’s decision to not seek a second term surprised him, Kaine says.

Part of Kaine’s campaign message touts his ability to bridge partisan divisions to get things done.  “The Senate is so gridlocked now into partisanship, where people won’t work together,” Kaine says. “What I excel at is going into challenging situations where people don’t work well together and being part of the change team … the nation desperately needs that.”

The Allen campaign, however, is likely to undercut that bridge-building claim using partisan comments Kaine made during his two-year stint as chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

Rozell notes that neither candidate was burdened with having to introduce themselves to voters. The two ex-governors have plenty of connections in every corner of the state. “Both these guys are tried and true Virginians …  and connected to Virginia and Virginia issues. They don’t have to prove themselves in that regard,” he says. Yet because so much is at stake, they’re somewhat at the mercy of forces beyond their control. “The national campaign and national issues are playing a really big role here,” he says. “It’s a strange race, in that way, I think. So much hinges on the outcome of this race.” 

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