The 2012 contest will play out in a state that has changed dramatically in recent years. Kaine — the former governor and Democratic National Committee chairman — draws strong support in portions of Northern Virginia, which has rapidly gained population, wealth and political clout. Allen, the ex-governor and senator, remains stronger in the rest of the state.
The race may decide which party controls the Senate — a daunting task for Democrats, who must defend 23 seats to Republicans’ 10 next year. And in a state where voters have tossed between Republican and Democratic candidates in recent years, both men must overcome potential vulnerabilities from their pasts: Allen, for the controversial “macaca” incident that helped sink his 2006 Senate campaign, and Kaine for his close identification with President Obama’s policies, which could alienate independents.
Kaine and Allen begin the Senate matchup — which experts say could easily top $30 million — with similarly deep statewide experience, proven fundraising ability and broad name recognition. Both men’s tenure in office is remembered fondly by a majority of Virginians — 58 percent of voters approve of the way Kaine handled his job as governor, while 55 percent approve of Allen’s performance as senator.
The passage of time has had little effect on their standing. Kaine’s current number matches his job-approval rating in an October 2009 Washington Post survey among likely voters, three months before he left office, while Allen’s rating now is similar to what he received among likely voters in October 2006, a month before he lost his reelection bid.
Fifty-seven percent of voters have a favorable impression of Kaine overall, while 52 percent say the same of Allen.
“It seems that [Allen’s] got a vision, and he follows it to a T,” said Donald S. Brill, 54, a retail store employee from Winchester. “He doesn’t back down.”
Thomas DePriest, 65, a retired federal government lawyer from Falls Church, had a similar opinion of Kaine.
“I think he is an intelligent leader who makes the right decisions,” DePriest said. “I thought he was a good governor.”
But the poll also points to weaknesses in each man’s facade of support. Kaine is trailing among independent voters and in the booming outer suburbs of Northern Virginia, a key battleground in any statewide campaign, while Allen has a steep hill to climb with female and minority voters.
Reason for optimism
Political momentum in Virginia has seesawed over the past decade, giving the parties reason to be optimistic for November 2012.