Obama-Romney battle puts Senate race in Virginia in 'eye of the storm'

With Senate primary victories on Tuesday, George Allen (R) and Tim Kaine (D) will battle for a seat that could swing control of the Senate – in a state that could swing control of the White House.

Steve Helber/AP
Former US Sen. George Allen celebrates with his wife, Susan (l.), and daughter, Tyler (r.), in Richmond, Va., on Tuesday after securing a Republican primary win for US Senate.

A day that began as a soggy general election send-off for George Allen’s US Senate campaign ended with the former Virginia governor beaming from a Richmond stage to the soft twang of George Jones’s “The Race is On.”

The race is on, indeed.

Mr. Allen, who won Virginia’s Republican nomination by a wide margin Tuesday, heads into a fall matchup with fellow former governor Tim Kaine (D) that is expected to be one of the most tightly contested, expensive, and pivotal Senate races of 2012.

“Virginia is going to be in the eye of the political storm,” Allen said Tuesday night.

Between Tuesday and Election Day, both Senate candidates will attempt to ride the wake of a presidential campaigns that will put large amounts of resources into the Old Dominion. At the same time, Republicans and Democrats face questions about how their presidential nominees will relate to key parts of their base come November.

As Allen put it Tuesday: "The world's controlled by those who show up."

Allen, who lost his Senate seat in 2006, turned up at a half-dozen polling places Tuesday, meeting with handfuls of voters dribbling in to cast their ballots under gray skies and drizzle across most of the Commonwealth. A rainy Tuesday in June doesn’t scream political season to many Virginians, many of whom have already gone through a presidential primary and city elections this year.

But when polls closed, Allen prevailed over tea party leader Jamie Radtke, anti-abortion warrior and state Delegate Bob Marshall, and Chesapeake minister E.W. Jackson. Allen claimed more than 65 percent of the 255,000 votes cast. Ms. Radtke took 23 percent, followed by Mr. Marshall and Mr. Jackson at 6.7 percent and 4.7 percent, respectively.

With only 5.4 percent of registered voters turning up to cast their ballots, Tuesday’s sleepy primary did, however, eclipse the state’s last Senate primary in terms of voter participation. When now-Sen. Jim Webb (D) defeated attorney Harris Miller in 2006 with 53 percent of the more than 155,000 votes cast, only 3.4 percent of voters turned out.

But in November, with both President Obama and Republican contender Mitt Romney already lavishing money and attention on Virginia, turnout will likely soar. That means Allen and Kaine will battle for a seat that could swing control of the Senate in the shadow of their presidential partners.

“I don’t think either Tim Kaine or George Allen has complete control,” says Quentin Kidd, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va. “Their job is really to stay up in the wake of that really big ship, which is the presidential campaign, and whichever one masters water skiing on that large wake is likely to win.”

Both candidates are embracing their presidential ticket mates.

“I’m hopeful that Mitt and Ann Romney will be in Virginia right off, and if it all works out, I obviously look forward to campaigning with him,” Allen said outside of a northern Virginia elementary school.

Kaine, who was mentioned as a possible vice presidential selection for Mr. Obama in 2004 and who served as the Democratic National Committee’s chairman at the beginning of the Obama administration, has warmly embraced the president.

Both political campaigns are already blasting key Virginia markets with ads, according to an analysis by NBC’s First Read.

Over the past month, three Virginia markets – the Roanoke, Richmond, and Newport News areas – have been among the top 10 advertising markets for the two presidential campaigns nationwide.

Polls show Obama holding a lead over Mr. Romney in Virginia, but at the edge of the polling margin of error. In the Senate race, polls have shown some fluctuation, but both campaigns characterize the race as a dead heat.

But in a Senate race where the candidates are tightly linked to their presidential nominees, will both sides be able to turn out their base, given voters' questions about the tops of the tickets?

Mr. Marshall, the state delegate who nearly won the GOP’s Senate nod in 2006 by packing a nominating convention with supporters, says Mr. Romney and Allen face a challenge of inspiring their party's activists.

“If it's Romney and Allen, there’s going to be little enthusiasm from the activists,” said Marshall, who has waged cultural and social-values battles in the Virginia legislature, in his hometown of Manassas on Tuesday.

“The difficulty [Romney] has is there are so many YouTube videos of him with different positions. What it says to the conservative activist is, ‘Do I want to sweat blood and tears to knock on the next 35 doors?’ because where is this guy’s real position?” he says.

Similar questions arise from the GOP’s restive tea party base.

“The real fear is not that those people won’t vote for Romney-Allen, because, good-golly, the alternative would be devastating. But the concern you have is the intensity of the ground game,” says Ms. Radtke, who leads the state’s largest tea party organization. “We in Virginia must have a top-notch ground game because we know what Obama’s capable of when it comes to his organizing.”

And then there are questions about Romney’s Mormon faith.

“Romney is not exciting to the Republican base,” says Bob Denton, a political scientist at Virginia Tech in Blacksbuurg, Va., who specializes in political communication. “You’re in the Bible Belt, and there are some interesting notions about Mormons.… If this is a real base kind of race, that hurts Allen for every [evangelical voter] that stays home, and that’s certainly more a factor in southside and southwest Virginia.”

That hesitancy over religion was evident among some voters on Tuesday.

“Being an evangelical Christian, I don’t like that he’s a Mormon…. I think it will affect him and his policies,” says Cathy Guskie, outside of her polling place in a suburb south of Richmond.

Still, there will be plenty of support for both Allen and Romney among the party faithful.

Andrew Northend of Arlington, Va., said he “tends to be more sympathetic” to tea party critiques of many Republican politicians, but he expects his friends will turn out for Allen and Romney in November because they’re dissatisfied with Obama.

“People who are conservative are going to vote in November, come hell or high water," Mr. Northend says. "They will slog through snow or stand in the rain."

Democrats, too, will need to fire up their base. Since a surge of enthusiasm powered Obama to his Virginia victory in 2008 (the first by a Democrat since 1964), much of the luster has come off his message of hope and change.

Getting city voters and young voters to be as inspired as they were in 2008 is not going to be easy, says Bernie Vogelgesang, chairman of the Chesterfield Democratic Committee.

“It’s going to be harder getting the intensity level and the excitement level up again – with the economy being down and people’s perceptions that [Obama] is not doing enough – even though I think he is,” he says.

The sentiment was the same among some voters in the Democratic stronghold of Arlington, Va., a suburb abutting Washington, D.C.

“They just don’t make Democrats the way I like them anymore,” says Sally Broome of Arlington, Va., an Obama supporter who nonetheless feels Obama hasn’t kept many of his promises from the 2008 campaign.

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