Repeatedly in their grueling 19-month contest, Allen (R) and Kaine (D) made starkly different calculations about the best way to win the seat of retiring Sen. James Webb (D), from money to message to the mood of the voters. Kaine’s team was proved right Tuesday night, as the Democrat claimed a narrow victory over his foe and Obama won the state, as well.
“We made a few assumptions early on,” Kaine adviser Mo Elleithee said election night. “We said a positive message might actually work. . . . The other side, very early in this campaign, made a strategic decision that they were going to be running against President Obama and trying to link Tim Kaine to the president. They lacked any forward-looking approach.”
Multiple advisers to the campaigns of the two former governors, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly about internal deliberations, and outside experts agreed the contest was tight from beginning to end, underscoring the importance of every decision.
“These candidates were both pretty well known and well defined,” said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “There was not a lot of new information you were going to give voters about these guys.”
The Obama connection
Given that Kaine had just finished a stint as Obama’s choice for Democratic National Committee chairman, it was expected that his relationship with the president — and support for the administration’s health-care and stimulus legislation — would be an issue during the campaign.
But from the start Kaine refused to distance himself from Obama, instead agreeing with the president on most issues, even taking a speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. Allen chose to make their ties a focus of his entire anti-Kaine message, warning the Democrat would be “Obama’s senator, not Virginia’s.”
Chris LaCivita, a GOP consultant who has worked for Allen, said tying Kaine to Obama was crucial because it dented Kaine’s preferred image as a moderate willing to work across the aisle.
The strategy, LaCivita said, “mitigated the ability for their side to say that Allen is nothing more than a partisan hack. Fighting that issue to a draw was a win for Allen.”
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) disagreed.
“I think it actually backfired,” Connolly said. “This is not Wyoming. President Obama has maintained his popularity and standing in Virginia all along. He never collapsed in Virginia.”
Making up for ‘macaca’
If Kaine’s DNC service was a point of contention during the race, Allen had a much starker episode in his past to contend with — his “macaca” moment, when he used what many considered to be an ethnic slur against an Indian American Democratic campaign worker in his 2006 race against Webb. The incident sent his campaign off a cliff, ended talk of a 2008 presidential run and fed a narrative that Allen was ill-suited to the modern, diverse Virginia.