Virginia Senate: how Tim Kaine survived a record barrage of attack ads

No candidate for the US Senate has ever had more money spent against him than Virginia's Tim Kaine. But he triumphed because he was seen as the more bipartisan choice, experts say.

Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP
Tim Kaine, Democratic candidate for senator, gives his victory speech in Richmond, Va., Tuesday.

Tim Kaine triumphed over former GOP senator and governor George Allen Tuesday night despite having more money spent against him than any Senate candidate in history.

Since the race began last year, both Mr. Kaine – also a former governor – and Mr. Allen said they expected a contest that would be locked within the margin of error until the end. And that’s what they got, with polls showing the race closely divided until Kaine emerged victorious, winning by a margin of four percentage points.

That’s even though Kaine was targeted by more than $28 million in attacks by groups outside Allen’s campaign.

“There are going to be a lot of people on the other side who are going to have to regroup and figure out what went wrong,” said Mo Elleithee, a senior Kaine adviser, in a conference call during the campaign’s final week, “because Virginians just have not responded in the way that those groups had hoped they would.”

Kaine’s third-party allies weren’t asleep at the switch: Allen took some $18.6 million in abuse. Among Republicans, only Wisconsin Senate candidate Tommy Thompson (R) took more – $20.5 million. (He also lost, to Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin.)

But the amount spent against Kaine is closing in on double the Democratic runner-up in this category. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) of Ohio took $16.5 million in flak.

“A lot of these negative ads, after a while, after millions and millions of dollars are spent – there’s nothing new,” said Mike Henry, Kaine’s campaign manager, on the conference call. “And also on the Allen side, he has a record and a reputation as well. People know these guys; they aren’t new to Virginia."

Republicans, too, weren’t surprised that seemingly endless campaign spending had little effect.

“It doesn’t surprise me that the numbers literally haven’t moved,” said Jason Miyares, a veteran Republican consultant in the Old Dominion. “You have two former governors with high name ID and are broadly well known.... These are not unknown, undefined candidates.”

Overall, the race hit a record with more than $82 million in spending. The previous most expensive race in Senate history? North of $59 million spent in 2010’s Connecticut Senate race, which featured a self-funding multimillionaire, Republican Linda McMahon.

So with millions of dollars in attack ads from both sides bouncing off the candidates, what made the difference in Virginia?

Many experts argued the race would closely track the presidential contest, as a flood of advertising and attention from President Obama and Mitt Romney swamped attention. That certainly happened, Virginia political analysts say.

But in this year’s political environment, said Virginia House majority leader Kirk Cox (R), “you’re going to have to be bipartisan.”

On that front, Kaine had an easier time than Allen.

Allen carried the partisan scars of aggressive campaigns for the governorship (in 1993) and for the Senate (in 2000) and a searing moment during his 2006 Senate reelection campaign in which he hurled what was widely viewed as a racial epithet at a staffer for his Democratic opponent, Jim Webb.

Repackaging the swaggering Allen of years gone by into a new, bipartisan figure was a tough sell to Virginia voters.

“In war, you better have your Pattons,” said Bob Denton, a professor of political communication at Virginia Tech, referring to the legendary 20th century American general. “But in peace, the Pattons may not go over so well.”

Kaine kept close to Sen. Mark Warner (D), his predecessor in the governor’s mansion in Richmond and a popular figure among many conservatives in the commonwealth. He offered a compromise position on taxes, aiming to raise rates on household incomes over $500,000 (versus the Democratic position of $250,000 and the Republican position of nothing at all) and was the only Senate candidate in 2012 to feature President George W. Bush positively in a campaign commercial.

In a state turning a deeper shade of purple every four years, it was enough to get Kaine into the Senate.

“History,” said Richard Cranwell, a retired Democrat who led the House of Delegates during Allen’s governorship, was “on Tim’s side.”

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