Senate race? What Senate race? Why Virginians pay a big race little heed.

Senate race in Virginia between Tim Kaine (D) and George Allen (R) is one of the marquee contests in the US. But Virginians, perhaps swamped by presidential politicking, seem to be barely paying attention.

Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times/AP
Signage in support of US Senate candidates Tim Kaine and George Allen outside of Squires Student Center, the site of a live televised debate on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, Va., Thursday.

Despite an avalanche of advertisements and the two Senate candidates' long legacies in Virginia politics, Republican George Allen and Democrat Tim Kaine have an unexpected challenge in their tight race: getting voters to pay attention to them.

“I am shocked, as I’m going out and ringing [on] doors [on behalf of GOP candidates], people don’t know the Senate candidates, despite their pedigree,” says former Rep. Tom Davis (R), who represented a district abutting Washington, D.C., for a dozen years until 2008.

The Senate rivals have now debated in public five times, most recently Thursday night. Millions have been spent by their campaigns to reach voters. Yet local politicos report that many Virginians seem to have not the foggiest idea what is going on in one of 2012’s marquee Senate races.

Susan Allen, campaigning for her husband, recently wrangled a light moment out of voter ignorance. She had run through her stump speech and was ready for questions from a handful of employees at a small medical company in Mt. Jackson, Va., a town in the commonwealth’s Shenandoah Valley.

The first questioner asked about the main differences between her husband, who has served the state as both a governor and a US senator, and his opponent, also an ex-governor.

As Mrs. Allen began her explanation, the questioner broke in again. “What’s his name, by the way?” he said, referring to Mr. Allen’s opponent.

“Tim Kaine,” she whispered, to a laugh.

What gives? There are a couple of theories.

One is that time in the commonwealth is measured in “Virginia years,” as Mr. Davis put it. The state is changing rapidly as its minority representation grows, and in the suburbs around Washington, D.C., there's a high churn rate of people moving in and out. As a result, a fair share of the voters who elected Allen (who ran for governor in 1993 and Senate in 2000) and Kaine (who ran for governor in 2005) simply aren't around anymore.

In 2000, less than 5 percent of the state was Hispanic. In the 2010 census, that figure grew to more than 8 percent. Virginia is about two percentage points more Asian in 2012, at about 6 percent, than in 2000.

Another is that the state is awash in political advertising – and the Senate candidates may be tuned out as “just another political ad.”

In 2008, nearly 59,000 presidential ads were aired across the commonwealth, according to data from CNN and Campaign Media Analysis Group. The Obama and Romney campaigns had roared past that mark by Sept. 30, with more than 80,000 aired, according to the Wesleyan Media Project.

Compare that with the Senate campaigns, which aired nearly 22,000 commercials combined through the end of September, according to data from the Wesleyan Media Project.

Some voters may be turned off by the negative tone of many ads in both the presidential and Senate campaigns, says Bob Denton, a professor of political communication at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va.

Attack ads can activate a candidate's base and may hit home with a few voters leaning in one direction or another, he notes. But “there can be a backfire effect from the standpoint of cynicism, and the older people are the more sensitive they tend to be in terms of that cynical attitude,” Professor Denton says. Brutal negativity “could suppress votes if you’re not careful.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Senate race? What Senate race? Why Virginians pay a big race little heed.
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today