Early in their race for U.S. Senate seat, George Allen’s campaign made a strategically important decision: to incessantly attack Timothy M. Kaine as a shill for President Obama and his liberal policies.
The move was either a savvy way for Allen to undermine the core message of Kaine’s candidacy, or a waste of money that fundamentally misread Virginia’s political direction.
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.”
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.”
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.
This time, neither Kaine nor Allen spent much time tackling the issue head-on. Kaine’s campaign strategists assumed voters remembered the incident well and didn’t need to be reminded of it. Still, Kaine did say during debates that Allen had used divisive and “bullying” rhetoric.
Allen’s team, meanwhile, embarked on a concerted effort to soften his image. Beginning in June, Allen aired a series of commercials featuring testimonials from women who had worked with him or knew him well. The spots were aimed at women and moderate voters who might have had lingering bad memories of Allen from the “macaca” incident.
Polls showed Allen’s personal favorability numbers to be decent throughout the race. But he suffered from a persistent gender gap, as women — nudged by ads tying Allen to controversial “personhood” and ultrasound legislation — leaned toward Kaine.
“They thought they had to basically undo 2006, but I’m not sure if people were paying attention,” Duffy said of the summer ad campaign.
While Allen went on the air early, the Kaine campaign aired its first ads in late August, later than most candidates in other competitive Senate races across the country. Although the spots came after outside conservative groups had spent millions against Kaine, the Democrat bet that voters were just starting to tune in to the race.
Then a key Kaine advantage kicked in — fundraising. Through Oct. 17, Kaine raised of $17.4 million, nearly $5 million more than Allen. That made it more vital for conservative groups to come to Allen’s aid on the airwaves.
“Clearly, a critical part in the race was the sheer volume of outside help on the side of Allen, which greatly offset bad fundraising on their part, frankly,” LaCivita said. “The race never would have been competitive without outside money.”
Allen also drew criticism for his “burn rate” during his GOP primary contest, with critics saying he spent far too much money early in the race given that a strong primary challenge never really materialized. Allen’s primary opponents portrayed him as insufficiently conservative on the fiscal front — using some of the same arguments Kaine would make later — but the money Allen spent in the first phase of the contest gave him less to use later against Kaine.
Allen’s strategists felt the early spending helped lay the groundwork for the campaign, by securing his right flank and by helping him reintroduce himself to voters.
Beyond tying Kaine to Obama, Allen and his allies hit him on two other main fronts, calling him a habitual tax-raiser and supporter of the 2011 federal spending deal that put massive defense cuts on the table.
Many in Allen’s camp saw the latter attack as their most effective tactic against Kaine, given the defense industry’s central role in Virginia. Republican polls and focus groups found that message resonated particularly well with independent voters.
Kaine’s response was that he did not actually want the defense cuts to happen and, more simply, that Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and other Republican leaders had also backed the spending deal. And Kaine fought hard to cast Allen as the fiscally irresponsible candidate — willing to let the country default rather than raise the debt ceiling, and unwilling to provide a specific plan to reduce the deficit.
Unlike in 2006, neither campaign made a major gaffe that changed the trajectory of the race. Yet Connolly said Allen also didn’t do anything proactive that could have given him the win.
“George was a throwback,” Connolly said. “In some ways, his was an implausible candidacy. He’s been out of the game for six years, and his only real rationale was that he wanted to get back in. . . . So, why do you want the job again?”