Monday, April 11, 2011

Senate slugfest looms

With former Gov. Tim Kaine announcing last week that he plans to run for the Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Jim Webb in 2012, a potential slobberknocker of a U.S. Senate race is shaping up. One that could decide partisan control of the Senate.

Kaine isn't a lock for the Democratic nomination -- yet. Third District Congressmen Bobby Scott has said he'll announce in June or July if he's interested in the seat. A Kaine/Scott Democratic primary would likely be closely fought. But I'd be surprised to see Scott enter the race now that Kaine is in. He doesn't  have a lot to gain and he'd be giving up a pretty safe House seat.

So, the smart money is on Kaine as the Democratic nominee.

The same is true of former Gov. and Sen. George Allen, the man Webb beat in 2006, on the Republican side.

Allen does have opposition for the nomination. Tea Party activist Jamie Radtke has announced, as  have two even lesser known candidates. Rumor has conservative gadfly Del. Bob Marshall, who lost a bid for the Senate nomination in 2008, and anti-illegal immigration activist Prince William Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart, eyeing the race. A trial balloon for Rep. Rob Wittman (R-1st) went up a few weeks ago, but garnered little attention.

While polling a year away from the primary date doesn't mean all that much, Allen easily leads all announced or rumored candidates now. That's not surprising. As the star of Virginia Republicans resurgence in the 1990s, he has far higher name recognition than his opponents.

You'd have to think the nomination is Allen's to lose. But then, he lost an election in 2006 that was his to lose.

Republicans obviously hope that voter memories of "the macaca incident," in which Allen referred to a Webb staffer with an obscure racial slur, are short. That might not be his biggest problem on that score. The real damage from that incident was that it resurfaced a number of complaints over the years, from Allen's affection for using the "n word" in college, to his addressing a white supremacist group,  to the confederate flag and noose that he once displayed in his law offices, which suggest he has problems with black people. While the individual instances might not amount to much, there's so much smoke around Allen on these issues that it's hard to believe there isn't at least a small fire.

That might not be the kind of candidate you want to be running in 2012, when the nation's first African American president is up for re-election.

Democrats have to hope that Allen's personal quirks and his undistinguished six years in the Senate are the focus of the campaign.

Because if Kaine is their nominee, it likely sets up a Republican campaign designed to contrast Allen's and Kaine's records as governor.

That's a comparison that isn't good for Kaine.

Whatever one may think of the quality of Allen's accomplishments as governor, there's no doubt that there were simply more of them.

While the state was flush with revenue during Allen's term, Kaine's four years as governor were marked by austerity budgets that didn't really please anyone, Democrat or Republican.

Allen's major issue when he ran for governor was reforming the state's "liberal, lenient parole system." While one can argue if his reforms were as effective and as cost efficient as they could have been, the fact is that  he got that done. He can also tout signing the state's law on parental notification in case of a minor's abortion, which finally passed on his watch after an 18-year fight, and designing the state's welfare reform program.

Kaine ran for office touting the need for more money to build highways. He wasn't able to make that happen. He also, because of empty state coffers, wasn't able to institute the universal pre-K program he'd promised.

Big advantage there for Allen.

I wouldn't be surprised in 2012 if Allen talks about what he did as governor so much people will have to pinch themselves to remember that he's running for the Senate.

Kaine will have to focus on Allen's personality and Senate record. Kaine benefited in his own run for governor in 2005 by the perception that his Republican opponent Jerry Kilgore was running an over-the-top negative campaign. In 2012 Kaine, one of the genuine nice guys in Virginia politics, might have to get a little nasty himself. I'd be surprised if he's comfortable with that.

Allen's "A Team" won't have similar compunctions about playing political hardball. It's what they do and they're good at it -- you could ask Mary Sue Terry or Chuck Robb if you could find either one after Allen wiped them off Virginia's political map.

Both men have above average political skills and will likely have their respective parties fully behind them.

Kaine will have to run with his good friend President Barack Obama. Obama won Virginia in 2008 and could very well do so again. A recent poll had him losing the state to "generic Republican," but beating all of the specific announced or expected to announce Republican candidates.

Allen will have to run with whoever emerges as the nominee from what, at this point, doesn't look like a strong group of Republican presidential contenders.

It should be a tight battle, providing plenty of fodder for bloggers, talking heads and other forms of political junky.

Get your popcorn, Cracker Jacks and cold drinks ready.

Cross posted to All Politics Is Local.

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