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In Virginia's Senate race, GOP seeks to tie Democrat Kaine to Obama

June 14, 2012|By Paul West
  • In this file photo, former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine takes part in a debate among Senate candidates in Richmond, Va.
In this file photo, former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine takes part in a debate… (Steve Helber / Associated…)

Virginia's heavyweight Senate match between two former governors could be one of the clearest tests of a Republican campaign strategy of tying Democratic candidates to President Obama this fall.

In the race for Virginia's open Democratic Senate seat, Tim Kaine, a close Obama ally and the president’s first Democratic national chairman, is facing Republican George Allen, who lost the seat in 2006 after a campaign gaffe that captured the rise of YouTube as a political weapon.

Allen secured the Republican nomination this week against light primary opposition. Even before that, he'd been pointing toward November, with ads attacking the “Obama/Kaine agenda” and describing Democrat Kaine as “President Obama’s senator.”

Now, American Crossroads, the "super PAC" co-founded by Bush strategist Karl Rove, and an offshoot, Crossroads GPS, are launching a major ad campaign in several states linking Democratic Senate candidates to Obama and the administration’s most unpopular policies, including the healthcare law.

The group’s new attack ad in Virginia, targeting Kaine, is backed by a $1.6-million buy and will air in swing areas of the state over the next two weeks, according to Crossroads.  It portrays Kaine as having lost touch with the state he once governed and, using fuzzy video of Kaine addressing an unidentified audience, supplies what it wants voters to think is the Democrat’s motivation: “The answer is to serve the president,” Kaine says in the clip.

In his own advertising, Allen is employing video of Kaine calling himself “an unabashed supporter of the president,” footage that appeared to have been captured at another Kaine event by a “tracker” (trackers are campaign workers who follow opposing candidates around and attempt to document their every utterance). The use of the clip by Allen is something of a turnabout, as he was one of the earliest and most prominent victims of a tracker video that went viral on the Internet.

The son of a former Washington Redskins coach, Allen became a popular governor in the mid-1990s. The 60-year-old leavens conservative views with a jovial manner and was seriously talked about as a potential GOP presidential contender until his 2006 campaign imploded.

Allen came undone at a campaign stop in which he singled out a Democratic campaign videographer, a Virginia native of Indian descent, as “Macaca” and bid him “welcome to America.” The remark, captured on tape by the young tracker, quickly came to be seen as an ethnic slur. Allen was unable to contain the self-inflicted damage, and the incident was blamed for Allen's loss to Democratic challenger Jim Webb, who is leaving the Senate after one term.

Kaine, 54, the first sitting governor outside Obama’s home state to endorse him in the 2008 campaign, says he doubts that Allen’s attempts to make Kaine's name synonymous with the president’s will succeed.  He points out he disagrees with Obama on some issues, including gay marriage and the administration’s Libyan policy, but he's also aware that he can’t stray far from the president, even if he wanted.

Kaine was among the warmup speakers at the president’s campaign kickoff in Richmond last month.  And Obama’s coattails could be as crucial to him as Romney’s would be for Allen.

“I’m the president’s friend and I’m the president’s supporter,” Kaine told a group of reporters recently.  “I want him to be reelected.”

Republicans and Democrats in Virginia predict that, like the presidential race, the dead-even Senate contest will go down to the wire.

A recent Quinnipiac University poll, which showed Obama with a five-point lead over Romney in Virginia, had the Senate race virtually tied: Kaine, with 44%, to Allen’s 43%.  An NBC/Marist survey, conducted earlier in May, had Obama leading by four points and Kaine ahead by six.

Even if Republicans succeed in convincing some voters that Kaine’s connections to Obama are toxic, Kaine's chances of joining another former Democratic governor of Virginia -- Mark Warner -- in the Senate may ultimately depend on the president’s ability to turn out his base of young and minority supporters.

Follow Politics Now on Twitter

paul.west@tribune.com

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