Thursday, September 13, 2012

Virginia U.S. Senate Race

Race of the Day

Virginia U.S. Senate

September 13, 2012
54 Days Until Election Day

Status: Democrat Open
2008 Presidential Result: Blue State (South)

Outlook: Tossup (R)

One of the closest and most watched Senate contests across America this year will occur in Virginia. The Old Dominion has seen some of those Senate races before, and like 2006, when this particular seat was last open, control of the entire Senate may come down to the result.

An oddity of Virginia politics is that the Governor of the Commonwealth is limited to just one four year term at a time. With that in mind, it seems as if most former Governors go on to run for the Senate. All four of the state's most recent former chief executives have run in the last two Senate contests and this year's match-up will feature two former Governors, who also have some national recognition.

The Republican nominee is George Allen who is attempting to make a political comeback, six years after he blew away what should have been an easy Senate reelection. Elected Governor in 1993, Allen was considered a rising star in the GOP early on. He would be considered a popular and successful Governor and he went on in 2000 to knock off an incumbent Democrat Senator in a high-profile race. It was one of the rare GOP triumphs in that year's Senate cycle.

Allen went about trying to make a name for himself on Capitol Hill, as an ardent and outspoken conservative, which was a bit different from his more moderate, consensus building image as Governor. After the 2004 elections, Allen had many in the conservative grassroots and media speaking of him as a leading potential 2008 Presidential candidate. Of course, he would have to get through what was not expected to be an overly challenging 2006 reelection.

The incumbent was the heavy favorite in 2006, but demographic changes in Virginia led Democrats to believe they could give him somewhat of a tough race, which would in turn make his Presidential ambitions a bit more complicated. Eventually, Jim Webb, a former Reagan Administration official, who had turned against the GOP, largely over opposition to the Iraq War, entered the race. Webb was highly backed by liberal blogs and party insiders alike, and he advanced as an underdog to face Allen. The face of the race changed dramatically in August, when Allen made one of the most destructive political mistakes in campaign history. He jokingly made reference, while on camera, to an Indian-American tracker from the Webb campaign as "macaca", which despite the Senator's denials, was taken by most to be a reference to some sort of African monkey. The video immediately went viral and suddenly, the talk, which had already existed without much justification of Allen being a "racist" was all over the campaign. The incumbent apologized but was never able to live down the damage that was done. The race got very nasty as Allen and his allies attacked Webb, in a way that was considered over the top by many. Democrats were surging in Senate races across the country at this time and when all is said and done, Webb prevailed by just a few thousand votes, in what was once considered a long shot effort. Suddenly, Allen's Senate career and Presidential aspirations (which likely would have been done for even if he had been reelected) were over.

Going on to the Senate, Jim Webb was expected to be a forceful presence in the nation's capital, but for whatever reason, that never happened, and Webb,. despite some minor 2008 Vice Presidential speculation, has never seemed at ease in elected office. Early in 2011, he announced he would not seek a second term. By that time, it was clear that Allen, who had skipped a couple earlier attempts to run again statewide after his loss, was planning on a 2012 rematch against the man who beat him, and the polls looked very close for that hypothetical matchup.

The years of 2006 and 2008 had led to the perception that Virginia was moving towards the Democrats, but Republicans rebounded with strong showings in 2009 and 2010 in the state. There was much speculation as to who might step forward to try to replace Webb in the Senate race, but Democrats got their top recruit in the person of Tim Kaine. He had been elected Governor in 2005, and was considered a rising star in his party. During the 2008 Presidential campaign, Kaine was considered one of the finalists for being Barack Obama's running mate, and Kaine seemed to be publicly lobbying for that job, more than anyone else had. While he was not selected, Obama after his successful election did name Kaine to be Chairman of the Democrat's National Committee. He would continue in that job even after leaving the Governorship to a Republican successor and was present during the horrible 2010 midterm results for his party. He resigned as DNC Chair in order to enter the Senate race, and Democrats were pleased he was willing to make this race.

While George Allen would have to face and overcome some primary opposition, especially from those who tried to run to his right, a general election battle between Allen and Kaine had been anticipated for some time. Democrats believed that Allen had harmed his political career for good due to his "macaca moment" and that he would be seen as too far to the right for the fast growing state. Republicans believed that Kaine, by virtue of his close ties to Obama and his down the line advocacy for the Administration and party, especially on something like Obamacare, would harm his chances of winning statewide again.

All the while, polls have shown an extremely close race, that easily qualifies this contest as a tossup. In fact, I think it is accurate to say that whichever Presidential candidate carries the state, will also see the Senate nominee of their party also win. It is virtually impossible to imagine any supporters of both Barack Obama and Allen in the state, and there probably are not many more folks who back both Mitt Romney and Kaine. Money and surrogates will sour into the state, both for the Presidential and Senate races, and both of those contests could go down to the wire. At the present time, Democrats believe that Virginia is more than winnable again for Obama, largely because of a large government workforce in the Washington D.C. suburbs, that make the state far less "southern" than it was once considered. With that in mind, Kaine has not shied away from his support of Obama. He will need a strong African-American showing to win the Senate race. Allen is also clearly on board with Romney, but seems to be more willing to run his own race. He skipped the recent Republican convention to campaign instead at home.

There will be some high-profile debates and other events before the November voting, and Republicans will certainly be hopeful that Allen is a far more careful about what he says on the stump these days. It is accurate to say that Allen has done a lot towards rehabilitating his image after the disastrous 2006 campaign, but it remains to be seen whether or not it will be enough to win. During the month of August, polls from Rasmussen Reports, which Democrats say are too Republican, and from Public Policy Polling, which Republicans say is too Democrat friendly show this race as a complete tie with both candidate in the mid 40s. More recently, a poll from the lesser known Gravis firm shows Allen leading Kaine by five points. That would be great news for Republicans if true, but it is only reasonable to want to see other polls backing up such a number in order to consider this race anything other than a true tossup.

In thinking about what is likely to happen, I do think that the fates of each party's Presidential and Senate campaign are tied together. With that in mind, my hunch as of today is that George Allen will prevail very narrowly and return to the Senate and gain at least a bit of political and personal redemption.

Allen campaign link:

2012 U.S. Senate races predicted thus far: 16 D, 13 R
Predicted U.S. Senate Balance of Power thus far: 46 D, 50 R