In no other U.S. Senate race is the outcome more linked to the presidential contest than the battle between former governors Tim Kaine and George Allen in Virginia, a state that may also determine the winner at the top of the ticket.
The race represents a rare pairing of former elected officials who left office with high approval ratings. Both have taken tours on the national stage -- Allen as a Republican U.S. senator who made a brief presidential run; Kaine as chairman of the Democratic National Committee who was on the vice presidential short list in 2008.
Their messages on the economy and government spending are almost indistinguishable from Republican Mitt Romney for Allen and President Barack Obama for Kaine. Much like the presidential race, the outcome will probably be decided by a narrow sliver of independent voters and may depend upon the ability of Republicans to win back female voters.
“They’re both so tied to the top of the ticket,” said Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia. “They’re prize fighters of the same weight, they hit the same.”
While some polls show Kaine, 54, with an edge, the race is virtually tied and the winner will partly depend on which campaign better mobilizes voters. Also like with the White House contest, jobs, the economy and fiscal issues are commanding the airwaves in the final stretch of the campaign for a seat that will help determine which party controls the U.S. Senate.
Fiscal issues are amplified in the Old Dominion with automatic spending cuts set for January expected to hit the state’s defense industry hard, as Virginia is home to the Pentagon, military installations and a string of Defense Department contractors. Unless Congress acts to avert them, the defense cuts would amount to $55 billion annually.
According to Kantar Media’s CMAG, in the past 90 days all of the 2,110 ads for the race sponsored by the Democrat-run Majority PAC and 5,150 of the spots paid for by Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, the Republican nonprofit supporting Allen, take aim at the opposing candidate’s record on tax-and-spending issues.
“What Virginians are seeing probably looks a heck of a lot more like what we’re going to spend the last eight weeks of this year talking about,” said Jennifer Duffy, a Senate race analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington. “Right now, there are few places with as much at stake” as Virginia.
A significant gender gap could favor Kaine. Historically, women favor Democrats and men favor Republicans. This year, the advantage women are giving Democrats is greater than the preference men express for Republicans, said Bob Holsworth, a Virginia political scientist and former professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Women voters in Virginia have been inundated with headlines about state-level attempts to curtail abortion rights, including a new law that requires women to have an ultrasound before undergoing an abortion.
Soon after the Nov. 6 election, both parties’ fiscal proposals will take on greater national significance as Congress debates the $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts over 10 years and tax increases set to take effect in January and seeks to strike a deal to reduce the U.S. budget deficit.
“Kaine is someone who believes very clearly that you need to hit both the spending side and the revenue side, Allen has been far more of the ‘no tax camp,’” Holsworth said. “At the core, they have different philosophies.”
Allen advocates a flat tax, expanded oil exploration and a balanced budget amendment to limit government spending. Kaine proposes a menu of spending cuts and tax increases for individuals earning more than $500,000 a year, in addition to investments in education, infrastructure and alternative energy. Obama wants to lets tax cuts lapse for the top 2 percent of U.S. households, or income exceeding $200,000 a year for individuals and more than $250,000 for married couples, one area where he and Kaine differ.
Both candidates have run their campaigns figuring that what happens at the top of the ticket will closely track their own prospects, though Allen may be more dependent on a Romney victory in the state than Kaine is on an Obama win, Holsworth said.
“Allen had been running almost grounded in the assumption Romney would win Virginia,” Holsworth said. “It’s very difficult to see how Allen could separate himself from Romney to get Obama-Allen voters.”
In an interview, Allen said he is hoping to win some of those crossover voters, including Virginians who benefited from jobs he brought to the state as governor and those who support divided government. “There are those voters,” he said.
During a roundtable discussion yesterday with small business leaders in the Washington suburb of Alexandria, Allen cast Kaine as a tax-and-spender who would hurt the state’s economy.
“Raising taxes doesn’t create any jobs, maybe at the IRS, but it doesn’t create jobs in the private sector,” said Allen, who said the U.S. government could raise more than $1 trillion by opening more land for oil and gas exploration. “If you want more revenue, have a pro-growth agenda.”
Kaine says it isn’t possible to balance the federal budget without spending cuts and tax increases for top earners, which would facilitate investments in education and infrastructure that will create jobs.
“I developed some scar tissue and some backbone as governor by having to make so many cuts, by handing my successor a smaller general fund budget than the one I inherited,” he said. “I know how to do cuts, I know how to do them the right way without hurting the economy, but I also know very powerfully that if you’re only cutting you’re making a mistake.”
The battle over fiscal issues and defense spending cuts took center stage at a Sept. 20 debate in Northern Virginia.
Allen, 60, cited his early opposition to the 2011 legislation that established the cuts because of the risks to Virginia’s defense industry and attacked Kaine for supporting the agreement. His website recently opened with a picture of a chained iron gate and the headline “Devastating job losses for Virginia.” According to a study by George Mason University, defense cuts could lead to the loss of 136,191 jobs in the state.
At the national level, Romney has waded into the issue by blaming Obama for the threatened cuts, and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio has labeled it “the president’s defense sequester.”
According to Allen’s “Blueprint for America’s Comeback,” he would trim Medicaid and other programs such as food stamps to control government spending. He also says Medicare must be overhauled to “protect the program from going broke.”
The 2011 budget agreement was bipartisan, passed with the votes of the Republican leadership, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia. Kaine has called it “flawed but necessary,” to allow for an increase in the debt ceiling. He says Allen lacks a detailed proposal for averting the cuts.
As part of his fiscal plan, Kaine wants to allow the government to negotiate lower prescription drug prices that would save Medicare $240 million over 10 years and end breaks for the five biggest U.S. oil companies, which he says would save $24 billion.
“Virginians, Virginia businesses especially, really want to know what we are going to do to avert some kind of a major economic clash this year,” Kaine said in an interview last week. “They want specifics from candidates.”
Duffy, the Senate analyst, said while it’s doubtful that most voters are familiar with the details of Kaine and Allen’s plans, the election in Virginia can be viewed as a referendum on those policies as they mirror the positions of the presidential candidates.
“You can, in some ways, see each as a microcosm for their party’s point of view,” she said.