Many Virginian voters still remember the ‘macaca moment’ from the 2006 Virginia Senate race. The Republican candidate, then-Senator George Allen, uttered a racial slur at a campaign tracker for his opponent, Democrat Jim Webb, propelling Webb to an incredible upset victory. Allen is attempting to re-enter the Senate with Webb’s impending retirement, and is currently locked in yet another tight race. However, recent polls show his Democratic rival, former Governor Tim Kaine, pulling ahead.
Virginia is crucial to both parties’ Senate hopes, and significant partisanship pervades the campaign as both candidates attempt to distinguish themselves and energize their respective bases. But there has also been a striking return to moderation throughout the state, compelling Kaine and Allen to highlight their capacity for bipartisanship. The election is characterized by this tension between the influences of hyper-partisanship and bipartisanship. In a nationwide political climate where interparty malice has created political stalemate, this election could guide Washington to a productive future.
Winning the Old Dominion
The candidates are evenly matched in experience. “They both have records as governors that can be compared, though they governed in completely different times,” explained political analyst and University of Virginia Professor Larry Sabato for the HPR. “Kaine’s problem is he had to make lots of tough budget decisions during hard times, and many were unpopular… [Allen] was governor during fat times in the 1990s, and was able to accomplish a lot of his agenda such as parole abolition, education reform, and welfare reform.” With economic issues at the forefront of voters’ minds, unpopular fiscal policies could hinder Kaine’s campaign.
Kaine’s campaign is trying to spin his gubernatorial decisions, touting national rankings taken during his governorship that showed Virginia had among the lowest unemployment rates and the highest median income in the nation. Allen likewise harkens back to his governorship. A September press release claimed that he “cut the size of the Virginia government by nine percent while adding 300,000 net new private sector jobs” during his tenure.
The campaigns are no longer attempting to change the electorate’s position on specific issues. Rather, most political advertising in Virginia is focused on “getting people to change what they think is important,” explained Stephen Ansolabehere, a Harvard Government Professor. Allen has advocated for low taxes, opposed the impending budget sequestration, spoken against gay marriage, and proclaimed himself firmly pro-life, stances that play well to Virginia’s religious right.
Meanwhile, Kaine recently proposed ending the Bush-era tax cuts for people making more than $500,000 a year, and he has hammered Allen’s staunchly conservative positions on topics including immigration, women’s issues, and healthcare. Over the next few weeks, both candidates must change undecided voters’ priorities to win their support.
Where’s the Party?
However, Allen’s difficulties and Kaine’s resurgence reflect a general shift away from Virginia’s tradition of robust conservatism. Dan Palazzolo, Professor Political Science at the University of Richmond, tells the HPR, “The state had been changing, this is what people don’t get… there were plenty of Democrats who were getting organized, [winning] two gubernatorial elections.” Indeed, Virginia has voted Democratic repeatedly in recent state elections, but remained reliably Republican on the national stage until President Obama snatched the commonwealth’s 13 electoral votes four years ago.
The fact that most Virginia races occur in years without presidential elections partially explains that fact. “There are very different electorates in presidential and gubernatorial years, in part due to our off-off year contests,” says Sabato. “The former is much larger and far more diverse. The latter can be dominated by voters with a connection to state-based issues.” Virginia elects governors with one-term limits during the year after a presidential election. Nonetheless, the Democratic Party has managed to slowly increase its clout during federal election cycles, grabbing both Virginia Senate seats.
This development underscores the Allen-Kaine race. While other states have experienced vigorous partisan debate during their election season, the Virginia contest has veered towards the center, with both candidates fighting to prove their bipartisan credentials. Most undecided voters are moderate Republicans and independents.
Although Kaine is certainly more moderate than other heavyweight Democratic candidates like Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts, he has been closely tied to President Barack Obama. “There’s a closer tie here…because of Kaine’s role in the Democratic National Committee,” remarks Palazzolo. As DNC Chairman from 2009 to 2011, he built support for the President’s policies that infuriated conservatives, but now, he is trying to prove he can compromise with Republicans.
Finding the Center
Throughout the country, observers have remarked that whichever party can mobilize the greatest number of core supporters on November 6 will win the election. Simultaneously, there’s a fundamental tension when the players in many state races are trying to achieve some level of moderation.
On one hand, candidates are being pulled toward their respective political camps in an effort to differentiate themselves, and this pull is often much stronger than conciliatory forces. On the other, the statewide disposition has prompted the candidates to adopt cooperative tones. “After this election, some degree of cross-partisan deal-making is going to have to happen,” notes Ansolabehere. These competing factors will spread nationwide within a few years if voters reject politicians that reflect hyper polarized Washington gridlock. Thus, advocates of bipartisanship should look towards Virginia and states’ elections this November; they may be pleased with what they find.