Virginia Senate race verging toward Kaine vs. Allen

By Ben Pershing
Friday, March 18, 2011; 7:25 AM

The pieces are gradually falling into place for George Allen and Timothy M. Kaine to square off for Virginia's open Senate seat next year in what would be a rare matchup between former governors and statewide political giants and one of the most-watched contests in the country.

Neither man is assured of his party's nomination to try to succeed retiring Sen. James Webb (D). Kaine, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said through a spokesman this week that he was "increasingly likely" to run but had not finalized his decision. Allen, who is trying to reclaim the seat he lost to Webb in 2006, must survive a Republican primary against tea party leader Jamie Radtke and perhaps a handful of other candidates.

But operatives in both parties are preparing for the possibility that Kaine and Allen will face each other. And each side expects a race that will be influenced by the candidate who will be atop the ballot: President Obama.

Republicans have made it clear that they would seek to make Virginia's Senate race a referendum on Obama's policies, betting that Kaine's service at the DNC will serve as a drag on his campaign.

"He has been the loudest cheerleader for the stimulus, for the health-care bill, for all the spending and taxing that has been going on," said Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

As a result, Walsh said, "the rhetorically moderate profile that Tim Kaine tried to craft as governor has been laid bare by his tenure at the DNC the last two years."

Having won Virginia in 2008 - the first Democrat in 40 years to do so - Obama will again lavish attention and resources on the state in 2012. Democrats expect that the effort will drive their voters to the polls and help propel their Senate candidate to victory.

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said that having Obama atop the ticket will be a net positive for Kaine - a benefit that Democrats didn't have last year, when three of their congressional incumbents lost seats.

"We are going to have almost double the turnout we had last year," Connolly said. "That's an entirely different electorate."

Whichever argument prevails, both parties anticipate a hard-fought contest that will be a magnet for national attention - and cash.

In their 2006 matchup, when Allen, the incumbent, lost to Webb, the two spent more than $20 million combined. Operatives in both parties estimate that Kaine and Allen would easily top $30 million in 2012, and that doesn't include many millions that would be spent in the state by national party organizations, outside interest groups and the presidential campaigns.

From the right, much of that money would be aimed at painting Kaine as a standard-issue liberal.

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