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Virginia Senate race: Why Tim Kaine, George Allen vie for bipartisan mantle

In Virginia, Republican George Allen and Democrat Tim Kaine each wants to show he’s the one who can work across the aisle to get things done. Target suburban voters want a candidate who can help make a dysfunctional US Senate work.

It is perhaps the most telling sign of contemporary congressional politics that the men who would be Virginia’s junior senator are having a bitter fight about, of all things, bipartisanship.

Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican George Allen, both former Old Dominion governors, are in the twilight days of a campaign that has remained neck-and-neck throughout.

Given what both campaigns believe will be a very narrow margin of victory, the race may turn on the less-partisan voters in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., Richmond, and Hampton Roads. With those voters, breaking through as the less ideological and more bipartisan candidate could be the difference between Mr. Allen being only the third senator to return to the Senate after losing a seat and Mr. Kaine joining his gubernatorial predecessor and political patron, Sen. Mark Warner (D).

In all of Kaine’s and Allen’s many policy battles — on taxes, on the defense budget, on President Obama’s health-care law, and on exploiting American energy resources — both acknowledge that none of their priorities can succeed in a Congress at its dysfunctional, partisan worst.

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And so Kaine and Allen have cast themselves as the candidate who will be best at breaking through. So far, voters appear to give Kaine an edge. Nearly half (49 percent) of voters said Kaine would work better with the other party against 37 percent for Allen, according to a recent Washington Post poll.

Kaine has prosecuted a more consistent and, in the eyes of voters, more believable case for himself as a true bipartisan voice in Washington thus far. But his background boasts few bipartisan legislative achievements, and he was one of the party’s top champions for some of Mr. Obama’s most controversial policies.

Allen, for his part, scored a haul of bipartisan successes while governor of Virginia in the mid-1990s. But he lags in voters’ minds, perhaps, because the once hard-charging presidential contender may have accumulated too much partisan baggage in Richmond and during his ill-fated previous term in the Senate.

The Kaine campaign

Kaine’s final two advertisements cap what has been a permanent feature of his campaign: a plea for less-toxic politics.

“As a missionary in Honduras I learned how faith can bring people together,” Kaine, who used President George W. Bush favorably in a prior ad, says in one homestretch commercial. “I’ll bring more partnership and less partisanship to Washington.”

Kaine will spend the final weekend of the campaign, too, working the stump with Senator Warner, a man who is something of a bipartisan saint in the Old Dominion. (When Warner claimed his Senate seat in 2008, he won a whopping 24 percent of Republicans while losing only 2 percent of professed Democrats.)

Both his ads and his time by Warner’s side reinforce what Virginia political analyst Bob Holsworth calls Kaine’s message of “instinctual” bipartisanship — that is, Kaine is personally and philosophically inclined toward moderation.

Being personally bipartisan is important for Kaine, who captained the state through the nation’s deep recession but fell short of Allen’s sweeping legislative achievements. During his tenure as governor from 2006-10, Kaine compiled a modest record of achievements, which nonetheless included the largest bonded education package in the commonwealth’s history and a transportation program to help revamp northern Virginia’s cramped roadways.

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It’s instructive of the size and scope of Kaine’s governorship, however, that the critique quickest to the tongue of many Republicans is his closure of highway rest stops.

And then there’s Kaine’s final budget proposal, a package bearing a series of tax increases that drew not a single vote from his own party. (Kaine responds that he was governing in difficult economic times and yet showed that he could balance a budget, something that would be of good service in Congress.)

While several Republicans critiqued Kaine as failing to build the relationships needed to make Richmond move, several pointed out that statehouse Republicans’ willingness to cut deals with Warner, Kaine’s predecessor, created a political monster — a popular, wealthy, and (thanks, in part, to them) successful Democratic politician.

The Republicans looked at the debris surrounding [Warner’s success] and said, ‘We’re just not going to do that around Tim Kaine,’ ” said former Republican governor Jim Gilmore, who faced similar Democratic opposition after he followed Allen into the governor’s mansion in 1998. “Was it a difference in governing styles? No.”

But Kaine also took up the mantle of partisanship late in his term. Kaine served as chairman of the Democratic National Party in 2009 and 2010, a period coinciding with some of the most controversial pieces of Obama’s first term: health-care reform, cap-and-trade legislation on carbon emissions, and the economic stimulus bill.

“The DNC stint for Kaine hurt him because it tied him so directly to some of President Obama’s unpopular policies,” says Kirk Cox, the Republican majority leader of the Virginia House of Delegates who served under both Kaine and Allen. “People always say President Obama’s strength is his personality, [as DNC chair] you don’t get the benefit of that, you get the negatives.”

The best indicator?

“The best indicator of what somebody will do in the future is what they’ve done in the past,” Allen said at a late-September debate in suburban Fairfax, Va.

But Allen’s political past is a split story: big bipartisan victories in Richmond alongside plenty of political and personal brusqueness.

On one hand, he amassed an impressive legislative legacy during his gubernatorial term (spanning 1994-1998), when Democratic control of both legislative chambers made compromise a necessity. Allen’s proposals for welfare reform, the abolition of parole, and accountability standards in Virginia’s K-12 education system stand as arguably the most productive governorship of any 20th-century Virginia executive.

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“People who have worked with him will tell you he is the guy who would lay back in his chair, kick his boots up on the desk, and sit and talk for a long time about the repercussions of an issue, an idea, or a bill, and work and work and work to build those coalitions,” says Susan Allen, the candidate’s wife and tireless campaign surrogate, in an interview on the stump in Mt. Jackson, Va. “He could not have been so successful as a governor [if he didn’t do that].”

Allen brought Democrats along as co-patrons of several major measures and assiduously courted Democrats on his education reforms.

But the record of achievement doesn’t tell the whole story. Allen won the governorship in a commanding fashion, surging from some 20 percentage points behind to beat a heavily favored and better-funded opponent.

“That bipartisanship was a compelled bipartisanship,” says Mr. Holsworth, “compelled by the fact that Allen won 58 percent of the vote [in 1993] and compelled by the fact that many Democrats were petrified that in the next General Assembly election he was coming after them if they didn’t support him.”

Of course, voters also have Allen’s 2000-06 term in the US Senate to consider. There, he not only scored few bipartisan victories — notably, a bill that prevented taxation of the Internet — but also helped Republicans gain a net four seats as chairman of the GOP’s Senate political effort in the 2004 election cycle.  

Mostly, however, Allen’s bipartisan record is marred by how his Senate tenure ended in 2006.

Democrat Jim Webb, a decorated Marine and former undersecretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration, was a longshot candidate to take out Allen, a presumed presidential contender in 2008.

But during a campaign stop in southwest Virginia, Allen called a staffer for his opponent’s campaign on site to record the event “macaca,” which was widely interpreted as a racial epithet. When Allen lost to Mr. Webb by about 9,000 votes, a mere sliver of the more than 2.2 million cast, many attributed his downfall to the macaca moment.

In the minds of many Virginians, the word “macaca” and George Allen are tightly soldered together. Seen in grainy footage, the same swagger Allen exhibited while running roughshod over Democrats appeared less the folksy, good ol’ boy they came to know during his gubernatorial reign and something much meaner.

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It’s a moment difficult for Allen to shake.

“When it comes to certain issues like candidate image, once it’s forged it is very difficult to alter,” says Bob Denton, a professor of political communication at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. “That is one of the challenges that [Allen] has.”

In 2006, for example, Allen won a larger share of Democrats (7 percent) than Webb, a former Republican who served in President Reagan’s administration, won Republicans (6 percent). But in 2012, 9 percent of Republicans prefer Kaine versus only 2 percent of Democrats who say they will vote for Allen, according to the Washington Post poll.

When the macaca moment arose this year on the debate stage, Kaine acknowledged Allen’s profuse apologies — and promptly pivoted to quote an earlier, also impolitic George Allen utterance: Allen’s vow to knock Democrats’ “soft teeth down their whining throats” at the 1994 Virginia Republican convention.

The implication is clear: George Allen is a partisan through and through.

“If you really want to break through the partisan gridlock, Tim Kaine is your guy,” said Mo Elleithee, a senior Kaine adviser, on a call with reporters Thursday, “and George Allen is not.”