Virginia Senate Showdown:
VCU Political Analyst Robert D. Holsworth
Analyzing the Robb-Allen Debate
Monday, Sept. 25, 2000; 2 p.m. EDT
The U.S. Senate race in Virginia this year is one of the most closely watched contests in the nation, as veteran incumbent Sen. Charles Robb (D) faces off against popular former governor George Allen (R). Robb is finding himself the underdog in statewide polls as the two have spar over education, guns and the environment, and the debates will give voters a chance to hear from the candidates in a forum outside their increasingly tough television ads.
How will the debates affect the tenor of the campaign, and will they get voters energized? What kind of message can Virginians expect in these last few weeks? How can Allen capitalize on his lead? Prof. Robert D. Holsworth is the director of the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University and an expert in politics in the Old Dominion. He will be live online on Monday, Sept. 25 at 2 p.m. EDT, after the Robb-Allen debate in Tyson's Corner.
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Greetings, Prof. Holsworth. Thanks for joining us today. So, the second of the debates in the Virginia Senate race just ended. What's your initial impression of the performances by Robb and Allen?
Prof. Robert D. Holsworth: I believe that we saw them reinforce the themes that were aired last evening, especially with respect to the tax cut issue. Former Governor Allen says that he will go to Washington and make tax cuts his top priority, especially the education tax credit. Senator Robb, on the other hand, believes that this is fiscally irresponsible. I believe that the issue is now enjoined and the winner debate will be the victor in the election.
Falls Church, VA:
Putting aside what might be fiscally responsible, from a political perspective do you think the issue of paying off the Federal Debt plays better with voters in the Commonwealth than Tax cuts? Or plays better with voters in different regions of Virginia? Thank You.
Prof. Robert D. Holsworth: I'm not absolutely sure. What is interesting about this election is that both candidates are willing to take to take absolutely contrasting positions on the issue. Governor Allen certainly believes that tax cuts always win in Virginia, just as they did for Jim Gilmore in 1997. Senator Robb represents an older tradition of fiscal conservatism -the deficit hawk approach-and believes that by the end of the campaign he will have discredited Governor Allen's proposals. It is a high stakes risk for both. But it is one that is genuinely connected to the core principles that each of these candidates espouse and it is a reason that I find this election so fascinating.
Hello Dr. Holsworth,
I had your Virginia Politics class down at VCU in the Spring of 1999--definitely one of the best classes I took during my time at VCU.
I also had the pleasure of being at the debate last night. I was surprised to see the reintroduction of the "abortion" debate to Virginia politics. As a Robb supporter, I sincerely hope that this is not an issue the campaign intends to hang its hat on.
Do you think this issue can have any traction for the Senator?
Prof. Robert D. Holsworth: Thanks for the comment about the class-it is certainly fun to teach and we get some great students.
I do not believe that abortion will rise to the level of the tax cut/fiscal responsibility debate that I just mentioned. Yet it will have an important role in the campaign. Robb will certainly target pro-choice suburban voters with his position. And former Governor Allen will use his opposition to late-term abortion to mobilize social conservatives. In addition, I believe that Governor Allen's statement last evening about how scientific evidence regarding viability could potentially justify restrictions on Roe v. Wade's basic premises will ensure that the issue is part of the Robb ad campaign.
I've noticed that George Allen frequently (and, to my mind, disingenuously)portrays himself as the down-home, aw-shucks country boy, in a cowboy boots, flannel shirts and chewing tobacco costume. Is this an appeal to the more conservative, rural western part of the state, and do you think this works against him in more urban areas of the state? Also, do you think rural Virginians resent being lampooned by Allen's "good ol' boy" image?
Prof. Robert D. Holsworth: Governor Allen runs very strong in most parts of rural Virginia and I expect that he will do so again. I believe that he also makes a strong effort to speak about issues that are important in other parts of the state, such as transportation and education. He has an incredibly loyal group of supporters across Virginia, though it is true that there are people who are comfortable with his style or approach.
Do you think that the ticket-splitting trend will impact Allen's chances in a state that will vote for Bush for President?
Prof. Robert D. Holsworth: I think that presumption that Bush carry Virginia by a greater margin than Republican candidates did in the 1990's poses a considerable challenge to Robb. If Bush does carry Virginia by 8-12 points, Robb will need a very substantial percentage of Bush voters to cross over. For this reason, Robb is attempting to find issues that will wean moderate voters from Allen. In contrast, Allen is attempting to emphasize the similarities in perspective. While both of the Senate are sufficiently well known to minimize the coattails effect, Robb does not want to face a situation where Democrats are not at all energized to come out an vote for the top of the ticket.
Bob, Doug Wilder's "intervention" last night on behalf of Sen. Robb was interesting. Does it indicate a cease-fire between Wilder and Robb or a reflection of Wilder's anathema for Allen? Or, was it just "Doug being Doug"? Thanks.
Prof. Robert D. Holsworth: And probably surprising to many people. I wouldn't read too much into it with respect to the future development of the campaign. I think that he felt that Governor Allen simply had not answered Senator Robb's question on Roe v. Wade and that a follow-up was needed. To be sure, it appeared to energize Senator Robb and changed the course of the Sunday evening debate. But I am not able to interpret the tea leaves much more extensively here.
Dr. Holsworth--Can you give your opinion why Chuck Robb dropped from being the most popular Virginia politician in the 1980s to being on the verge of defeat in 2000? I recall that Senator Paul Trible decided not to run for re-election in 1988 rather than face Mr. Robb. I assume there are several factors in Mr. Robb's difficulties--the growing strength of the Virginia GOP, Robb's bad press in the early 1990s, Robb's weakness as a campaigner. You may have some other ideas.
Prof. Robert D. Holsworth: There are a number of factors here. First, the stories that emerged in the early 1990's about Senator Robb's behavior in Virginia Beach were certainly very damaging. he would have been defeated in 1994, except for the fact that the GOP nominated Ollie North, a very polarizing figure who was not even supported by Republican senator John Warner. Second, as you noted, the political landscape changed in Virginia. In the entire decade of the 1990's, only one Democrat received more than 50% of the vote in a race with a statewide constituency (Don Beyer in 1993 running against Mike Farris, an underfunded candidate out of the home-schooling movement). Robb's popularity has actually significantly increased since 1994, but he is running against the man who helped to revitalize the Virginia Republican party.
Has Virginia become just too conservative to elect a Democrat statewide (with the possible exception of Mark Warner, who's as popular as he is because he's perceived to be almost nonpolitical)?
Prof. Robert D. Holsworth: A sequel to the last question. The trends in Virginia are fairly dramatic. But the great thing about politics is that trends always end-it is simply a question of when. Unlike the democratic gubernatorial candidates who lost in the 1990's (Terry and Beyer), Robb is presenting a much clearer choice and is fighting much more aggressively. I still do not know if he can win, but he is presenting his views, at least in my opinion, more assertively and lucidly. Mark Warner is a very strong candidate for Governor, because he should be able to do much better in Northern Virginia than Don Beyer did. he also will make inroads into GOP support in the business. But he doesn't have any victorious electoral experience and I think it is far too early to hand him the governorship.
I have been appalled at Senator Robb's reluctance to engage George Allen in TV ads in the Metro DC market. Surely the Senator is not taking Northern Virginia for granted? It seems to me that Allen can expect a good deal of support from the farther suburbs. I just want to shake Chuck Robb by the lapels and say "Get out there and fight, dammit!" Do you also see a lack of engagement on Robb's part and, if so, to what do you attribute it?
Prof. Robert D. Holsworth: I think that over the last week Robb has begun fully engaged in the campaign. I believe that the campaign will ultimately spend millions in the Northern Virginia market hitting the issues that have been developed during the debates. Part of the problem he faces is that, at least in some parts of the state, the Democratic Party is not as fully engaged as the Republicans.
Thanks for doing this forum.
What are your estimates for the number of "crossover" voters that Robb will need, in order to win. By "crossover" I mean voters who will vote for Bush for President and Robb for Senate?
I have heard some pretty astronomical numbers. Does he have a chance? Would this race be far different if it was like 1994 without a Presidential race on the top of the ticket?
Prof. Robert D. Holsworth: The crossover numbers that Robb needs depends on the extent of the Bush victory (assuming that the campaign stops the free fall of the past few weeks) and the extent of the Gore to Allen crossover. But if Bush carried Virginia by 10 points, Robb would probably need at least 1 in 7 Bush voters to cross over and vote for him- this is why the challenge is daunting.
How much is personality going to factor into this race? Robb has the advantage of the incumbent but seems reticent when on the stump. Allen is out glad-handing but people seem wary of his past record.
Prof. Robert D. Holsworth: Allen is a much more engaging retail campaigner than Chuck Robb. And his campaign uses this very effectively by featuring him personally in the more positive commercials that they run. To the extent that the public votes on likability, Allen probably has an advantage.
Was there a low point in today's or yesterday's debate, a line or a phrase that will come back to haunt the candidates? Or did they stick to the script, more or less?
Prof. Robert D. Holsworth: I'm not sure that there is a single low point that will come back to haunt the candidates. But these are guys who do not appear to like each other very much and, on more than one occasion, appear to get very close to letting their antipathy get the better of their judgments. Last night, Robb repeated a story from the book recently published by George Allen's sister suggesting that he thought about becoming a dentist so he could inflict pain. And today, after Robb had to leave the podium, to hear a question better from Julie Carey, Allen noted in a later statement that he was sure senator Robb could hear him because he was standing right next to him. Borderline stuff, don't you think?
Robb holds a key post on the Arms Services Committee. Should Allen defeat Robb, can Virginia expect to see Allen gain a seat on that committee when Virginia's other senator, a Republican, already holds that committee's chair?
Prof. Robert D. Holsworth: Good question. I believe that Allen will lobby very strongly to get the seat, especially given all the speculation that Warner would not serve more than one additional term. We saw how critical these seats were during the base closing process when Warner, Robb and the late herb Bateman were so instrumental in maintaining Virginia's position relative to other states.
With rapidly rising oil prices nationally, how do you see Sen. Robb's previous advocacy of the 50 cent per gallon gas tax playing as a major issue?
Prof. Robert D. Holsworth: If gas prices were at the level they were eight months ago, the issue would be ancient history. It has given Allen an opportunity (which he has consistently taken) of using the bill to suggest that Robb cannot be trusted to maintain a reasonable level of taxation. The hikes could not have come at a worse time for Robb.
I just came back from today's debate, and thought that Allen was much more aggressive than Robb in criticizing each other's record. Is aggressiveness a negative or positive with voters?
Prof. Robert D. Holsworth: Fascinating question. And very difficult to answer. Let me offer some background and then try to answer your question. Last evening was much more widely televised than today. Some insiders in the Allen camp warned him not to be too aggressive because it could look bad on television. There was some feeling after the debate that perhaps he had not been aggressive enough. And today's debate, with limited television coverage, was focused on the print media that will be reporting it and not the audience viewing.
Democratic Party "not fully engaged."
I'd say they're MIA (missing in action)
for some years now! It's incredible how
impotent the grassroots committees are.
Where is the leadership? Where are the
Prof. Robert D. Holsworth: I'll just finish where I was cut off- I think people want leaders to be principled and plain-spoken, but not pushy and intimidating. It's the line all campaigners have to walk.
You make a good point about democratic grassroots activism, though I do have to say that in the last election the democrats did relatively well around the state in local elections-especially in Fairfax County. In fact, I think that the party would do well to think about candidates for statewide office who have mobilized local electorates and then have a good record of accomplishment in major jurisdictions (Kate Hanley in Fairfax and Commonwealth Attorney David Hicks in Richmond come to mind).I give a lot of speeches to various groups around the Commonwealth and I have really been struck by the capacity of the GOP to turn people out for Saturday morning breakfasts, monthly dinners, etc.
What do you make of the Post trying to lean voters in the direction of voting Robb? A week or two ago, a poll showed Allen leading by more than ten among men and trailing among women by less than ten. But the Post headline was "Allen Scrambling for Women Voters."
Posted in the spirit of freedom of speech. :) The article can be found here.
Seriously, though, is there a gender gap in the supporters of either candidate?
Prof. Robert D. Holsworth: Headline writers are sometimes fabulous (capturing the gist of a story in a few memorable words), but they can be very misleading as well.
I think that we are going to see some fairly large gender gaps in this election. Indeed each campaign will attempt to reduce their g4ender gap deficiency. Robb emphasizes his military background to attract men, Allen downplays his previous position on assault weapons so that he doesn't alienate women. Also, one of the previous questions is relevant here in terms of how much aggressiveness candidates should display. Gail Collins of the New York Times says that women voters tend to dislike "Guys Who Scream" and I tend to agree with her.
Thanks for joining us today. In closing, can you tell us what to look for in the next debate between Allen and Robb?
Prof. Robert D. Holsworth: I think that the next debate will be driven by their relative position in the polls inasmuch as it will take place 16 days before the election-they'll attempt to shore up the base and make a final appeal.
I believe that the debates over the last two days have told us what them we're going to hear for next month-stark contrasts on taxes, education proposals, abortion choice, and guns. If there wasn't someone named Clinton running in New York, it would be the most closely watched Senate race in the country. And, in my opinion, it may well be the best race taking place.
Thanks for the questions- I look forward to talking with everyone as the campaign proceeds.
This concludes our post-debate analysis with Prof. Robert D. Holsworth. For complete coverage of the race, check out the Virginia Senate Race Special Report.
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