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This week’s scheduled adjournment of the Virginia legislative session can’t come soon enough for George Allen.
The Republican Senate candidate was left powerless to change the conversation over the past two weeks as controversial social issues enveloped Richmond’s Capitol Square. Leading up to today’s presidential primary in the commonwealth, the uproar over abortion-related legislation that’s received national attention continued to bubble over the weekend, as more than two dozen women’s rights protesters were arrested outside the state Capitol on Saturday.
The bill has been mocked on late-night TV, and Allen has wanted no part of it. The former governor and ex-Senator is seeking his old job on Capitol Hill and is expected to face former Gov. Tim Kaine (D) in November.
The Allen campaign has sought to make Kaine’s “unabashed support” of President Barack Obama the election’s No. 1 issue, but keeping the race on message has been made more difficult amid the culture wars in Richmond and Washington, D.C.
“When you’re running for federal office, the one thing you always have to do is tip-toe around the state Legislature because you just never know how much dung they’re going to leave on the field,” one Republican strategist in the state said.
Allen was silent on the controversial bill, which was ultimately passed by the state Senate on Feb. 28 and by the state House on Thursday and requires that “every pregnant female shall undergo ultrasound imaging and be given an opportunity to view the ultrasound image of her fetus prior to the abortion.” As the bill made its way through the General Assembly, Allen’s campaign sought to talk about anything else.
The Allen campaign released a Web video on Feb. 16 — two days after the ultrasound bill passed the state House — that again tied Kaine, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and an early endorser of Obama in 2007, to the president and the 2009 stimulus bill. Allen wrote an op-ed on Feb. 23 — the day the ultrasound bill passed out of a state Senate committee — on gas prices.
Allen’s events in recent weeks have included participating in two parades in Alexandria, speaking at GOP dinners and emceeing House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (Va.) annual campaign breakfast Friday.
Democrats pounced after the House of Delegates passed the first iteration of the bill on Feb. 13, and the Kaine campaign spun the controversy into a funnel for donations and volunteers. Kaine held a conference call on the subject on Feb. 22, calling on Allen to “reconsider” his support for a separate piece of legislation defining when life begins. That “personhood” bill, sponsored by state Del. Bob Marshall (R), who is also running for Senate, failed to pass.
Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) took heat over his support for the ultrasound measure, inviting media coverage questioning whether his potential as a presidential running mate this year was irrevocably damaged. Allen was able to avoid the ruckus by declining to state a position on the bill, despite continued calls from Democrats for him to do so.
“I think that they want to talk about these issues so they can avoid having to address any other issues that are being discussed when you’re going out on the trail,” Allen consultant Dan Allen said, citing gas prices, health care and jobs as what Allen hears about most. “I think that for Tim Kaine, as well as a lot of Democrats nationally, those are not issues they want to be addressing right now. I think they’re trying to hang on to and distract into other issues as much as they say that they’re not.”
Kaine has been touring the state during the past couple of weeks to discuss job creation with local businesses, business groups and local chambers of commerce, including two economic roundtables in Southside on Friday and Saturday. But his campaign clearly views women’s rights as an uncomfortable issue for Allen.
The Kaine campaign stated in a Feb. 13 release that Kaine “would protect and expand access to health care and contraception” while Allen would “take us backward.”
On Feb. 28, Kaine called on Allen to urge McDonnell to veto the ultrasound bill, and Kaine campaign manager Mike Henry emailed supporters Thursday to highlight how close the U.S. Senate vote was that day to table an amendment sponsored by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) that would allow companies and insurance providers to opt out of mandated birth control coverage for religious reasons.
“Washington doesn’t need another Senator who will push a divisive social agenda,” Henry said. “We need Tim Kaine in the Senate — the kind of guy who is focused on creating jobs and implementing policies that will help our economy grow.”
Two polls released in the past week — one by NBC News-Marist and one by Roanoke College — have found either Kaine or Allen finally taking a substantial lead in the race, though every past poll on the race has indicated only a statistically insignificant margin between the candidates.
Allen still has a primary to win before his race with Kaine officially begins, but his campaign is sure to pore over today’s GOP primary results for clues heading into what will likely be one of the closest Senate races in the country.