BEDFORD, Va. — Susan Allen is elegantly dressed, her voice soft.
But make no mistake, the former first lady of Virginia has come to this rural town in the Blue Ridge Mountains, home to the National D-Day Memorial, to do battle — against looming military cuts known as “sequestration,” and for her husband’s U.S. Senate bid.
“The fact that sequestration occurred, because nobody was willing to make a decision on the budget, has left us now to the point where we will take our Navy back to the size it was in World War I,” Allen told a group late last month. “And how do you do that when you’re closing bases around the world? . . . It just doesn’t make sense.”
Allen, the wife of former Republican senator and governor George Allen, is one of two former first ladies furiously hitting the Senate campaign trail this year in Virginia. The other is Anne Holton, who, in a more casual style, is out rounding up votes for her husband, former Democratic governor and aspiring senator Timothy M. Kaine.
In one of the most intensely watched races in the nation, one that could help tip the balance of power in the Senate, these two political spouses have been campaigning in ways rarely seen outside a presidential contest.
Zipping from coal country to Northern Virginia and seemingly every burg in between, Allen and Holton have schedules as jam-packed and well-advertised as the candidates’. The women have their own campaign aides and their own itineraries, released publicly with the hope of drawing news coverage to as many as seven events a day. Holton, whose work as a judge kept her from campaigning until this race, even cut a radio ad.
“I haven’t seen this in a race in a really long time, where the spouses have such a high-profile and daily role,” said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “Most spouses want no part of it, frankly. . . . The spouses here are all in.”
Their prominence is no accident, observers say, in a year when Democrats nationally have pushed “women’s issues,” ranging from equal pay to abortion. Those issues have been particularly hot in Virginia, where Republicans in the General Assembly pushed a number of anti-abortion bills this year, including one that would have required women to get a vaginal ultrasound before an abortion.
Both campaigns deny there is any women’s-issues subtext to the wives’ involvement, but many political observers think otherwise. Holton is in the spotlight to try to keep those matters front and center, political analysts say, while Allen’s high profile is meant to blunt the Democrats’ “war on women” claims and to soften her husband’s image.
“That’s so crucial for Republicans, to try to reduce the gender gap with women,” said Bob Holsworth, a former Virginia Commonwealth University political scientist.
George Allen’s campaign made “a very strategic decision” early on to highlight his wife’s role in the race, according to a campaign aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss strategy. The idea was not to counter the alleged “war on women,” the aide said, but simply to capitalize on her policy smarts and popularity. Campaign buttons circulating in Southwest Virginia read: “Vote for Susan Allen’s husband.”
“Susan is the Most Valuable Player of our team in sharing our ideas and solutions and listening to hard-working Virginians,” Allen said in a statement from his campaign.
Kaine spokeswoman Brandi Hoffine said Holton is merely supporting her husband’s career, as he has done hers over the years.
“Anne is absolutely one of my greatest assets on the trail, she is such a warm person that when she’s campaigning for me either speaking on my behalf, or listening, she really connects with people,” Kaine said in an e-mailed statement.
Both women are mothers of three with one teenager at home. Between the two of them, Allen has been the busier campaigner.
Allen, 51, once worked in hotel sales and marketing but became a full-time political spouse, focused on GOP campaigns and charitable causes, when her husband became governor in 1994. She’s been on the trail for 18 months and done about 300 events — not counting appearances with her husband.
Holton, 54, has been campaigning full time since mid-June, when she scaled back her work as a child welfare consultant to The Annie E. Casey Foundation. She’s headlined about 100 events.
The breakneck campaign pace is not entirely new for Allen, but her husband’s campaigns did not trumpet her every event until this time around. Now there’s a media alert ahead of time, a news release afterward.
“You just pack it in,” Allen said. “And really, it’s great. You get a wonderful variety of bits of information, and views and thoughts. That’s what we really want to do, touch as many people as possible.”
For Holton, the role of on-the-trail spouse is brand new — surprisingly so for a woman who grew up in a highly political household. As the daughter of a man who ran twice for governor (once successfully) and once for U.S. Senate (unsuccessfully), Holton attended countless political events as a child.
“I campaigned with my dad when I was 11 years old or thereabouts, and I did lots and lots of church suppers and firehouse town meetings,” she said.
But the trail was off limits once the Harvard Law grad became a Richmond juvenile judge, a job that prohibited political activities. She had to hang back even as her husband ran for Richmond mayor, lieutenant governor and governor. She left the bench to concentrate on being first lady when Kaine became governor in 2006.
Both women have biographies that help with crucial voting blocs. Allen is the daughter of a Marine pilot who served two tours in Vietnam. Holton’s father, A. Linwood Holton Jr., was a Republican, the first to win Virginia’s governorship since Reconstruction. Having grown up in Roanoke, Holton has roots in the Virginia coal country that lately has regarded Democrats with suspicion.
Allen and Holton have both moved beyond the feel-good fare traditionally relegated to first ladies, delving into issues such as health-care reform and the economy. And they’re doing so with personal styles that could not be more different.
There’s Allen, with her demure manner but a willingness to land a few punches: “We’re gonna fill you up on sugary doughnuts today because Michelle Obama’s not here to tell you, ‘No,’ ” Allen told campaign workers at an event in July.
Then there’s Holton, who has a more matter-of-fact style but a softer sales pitch. Chatting with nursing students at Virginia State University in Petersburg last week, Holton said she was there to tour the science building renovated with her husband’s help. She did not mention that he was running for Senate, much less ask for anyone’s vote.
In their own ways, both women have been great assets to the race, said Ray Allen, a Republican political strategist who is not related to the former governor.
“Susan has always been a very natural campaigner,” he said. “People really like her.” As for Holton, he said, “It’s a new role for her but she’s a very accomplished woman. I think it’s a great thing on both counts.”