It’s George Allen’s turn to give an opening statement at the second general election debate. The 60-year-old Republican’s broad shoulders slump a bit. Standing next to him is his Democratic opponent, the perpetually grinning Tim Kaine. Allen begins with a line from his stump speech, delivered in his distinctive drawl: “Folks, I’m envisioning a much better future than what we’re having to endure these days.”
These days, the future looks a little brighter for Allen. He may be on his way to reclaiming the Virginia Senate seat he lost six years ago. His defeat by fewer than 10,000 votes to Democrat Jim Webb (who declined to run for reelection in 2012) came in a terrible year for Republicans nationally. And during that race, Allen’s image seemed irrevocably damaged after video surfaced of the senator referring to a Democratic staffer with an obscure alleged ethnic slur at a campaign rally. It was a devastating defeat, but Allen hasn’t focused on the loss.
“The way I’m looking at this is not back. What I’m doing is looking forward,” Allen told me in June.
Forward, that is, to a race that has remained tight. The Old Dominion elected Barack Obama over John McCain in 2008, its first Democratic vote for president since 1964. What’s more, in the last decade, the state has elected two Democratic governors and two Democratic senators. But the subsequent cycles saw a comeback for the GOP, first in the statewide elections in 2009 and then in the federal midterms in 2010. This year, Virginia is a bona fide swing state, and the close Senate battle is a prime example.
If Allen hopes to return to Capitol Hill, he’ll have to win the critical outer suburbs of Northern
Virginia, particularly Loudoun and Prince William counties. In recent years, Democrats and Republicans alike have won statewide elections by winning in those swing counties. The Virginians who live there are younger and newer to the state than the suburbanites around Richmond and Hampton Roads, so to them, Allen may be a relatively blank slate.
Allen has run a straightforward, unremarkable campaign. His simple message echoes the broadly conservative GOP agenda: keep taxes low, reduce spending, maintain a strong national defense (he’s hit Kaine on his support of the debt deal that led to the possibility of defense budget sequestration), and repeal Obamacare.
That could be enough. Public polls show Kaine is running even with Obama, while Allen is lagging about two points behind Romney. But Jonathan Collegio of American Crossroads, the super-PAC that runs ads on behalf of conservative candidates, says their internal polling and focus groups indicate Kaine may be running behind Obama. Allen, too, may be doing better than the stories the polls tell. That’s made the race a top priority of American Crossroads. “I would venture that we’ve spent as much there as anywhere,” says Collegio.
Allen is spending a lot of time on the trail and in his debate performances touting his four-year tenure as governor in the mid-1990s. He passed conservative reforms of welfare and education, while attracting new high-tech businesses to the state. A recent article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch called him “one of Virginia’s most accomplished modern governors,” a designation Allen made sure to mention in the Richmond debate.
The 54-year-old Kaine, on the other hand, left the governor’s mansion at the beginning of 2010 with a multimillion--dollar hole in the state’s two-year -budget amidst a bad recession. Kaine, a practicing Catholic whose wife is the daughter of A. Linwood Holton (the first Republican governor of Virginia since Reconstruction), had a reputation as a moderate Democrat in the vein of his predecessor, Mark Warner. That was tarnished when, in 2009, the last year of his governorship, he also served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee—an explicitly partisan role—at the behest of President Obama.
Kaine, however, appears to have recognized a strategic opening: Appeal to those swing voters willing to split their ballots between a moderate conservative like Mitt Romney and a pro-choice, pro-defense liberal like, well, Tim Kaine. Democrats believe there are more “Romney-Kaine” voters than “Obama-Allen” ones. So rather than make a case for robust, Obama-era liberalism, Kaine has remodeled himself as a bipartisan pragmatist.
In the Richmond debate, he pledged to “always be a partner of the president of the United States, whoever that president is.” He plugged his work not only with President Obama but also with President Bush. A recent ad features Kaine standing alongside his fellow Democrat Mark Warner, who was elected to the Senate in 2008 and has earned some bipartisan credibility on energy and defense issues. “We’ll be a great team in Washington,” says Kaine, beaming.