Virginia’s TV airwaves have been clogged for months with presidential and Senate campaign ads, but it’s only a taste of the saturation to come before Election Day.
The marquee Senate race between George Allen, who won the Republican primary on Tuesday, and Democrat Tim Kaine is a contrast of style and policy between two well-known former governors — and it’s likely to remain tight until November. But they are in some ways simply along for the ride in a state fiercely competitive at the presidential level.
President Barack Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney will drive the state’s turnout and inevitably have an outsized role in who wins the Senate race. Both battles are crucial to the parties’ efforts to control Congress and the White House.
Speaking with reporters at an Allen event in Ashburn on Monday, Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) praised Obama’s 2008 campaign operation and “uplifting” message but said this cycle’s electorate in Virginia will be different and this race much closer. He also predicted state turnout higher than 70 percent — and an Allen victory.
“There are some issues clearly between the two that I think favor George Allen,” McDonnell said. “There’s no question the presidential election will drive a lot of voters to the polls, and so in some measure the Allen-Kaine outcome will be determined by how well Romney does in Virginia.”
Sen. Mark Warner, the other top surrogate in the Senate race, said that if either of the two candidates picks up crossover voters, it would be Kaine.
“I think there are going to be folks who vote for Gov. Romney and Gov. Kaine,” the Virginia Democrat said. “I’m not sure how many Obama-Allen voters there are going to be.”
Outside groups have already spent millions on TV ads in the swing state, targeting both races. NBC News reported on Tuesday that three of the eight media markets nationwide with the highest presidential advertising points this week are in Virginia. The Obama campaign is on the air in the state this week with an ad critical of Romney’s tenure as governor of Massachusetts.
Voters in the state already inundated with radio and television advertising for the presidential contest should expect an increase in attention now that the Senate race has kicked off. On Wednesday morning, American Crossroads, a GOP-aligned super PAC, announced a significant ad buy against Kaine tying the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee to Obama. Beyond advertising, the Kaine campaign announced Wednesday morning it has agreed to participate in at least eight broadcast debates around the state. Fresh off his primary win, Allen has not yet confirmed any general election debates.
Alongside McDonnell one day before the primary at a high-tech development and manufacturing firm in an office park near Dulles International Airport, Allen’s message remained largely the same as it’s been since Kaine entered the race in April 2011: that a vote for Kaine would mean further support for Obama policies unhelpful to Virginia, specifically energy and health care, which Kaine advocated at the DNC.
Allen is running to reclaim the seat he lost to now-retiring Sen. Jim Webb (D) in 2006, and his one term in the Senate is a frequent talking point for Kaine on the trail. Kaine says Allen’s votes directly contributed to the current state of the national debt and the recession the country dipped into shortly after Allen left office — contradicting Allen’s campaign rhetoric of fiscal responsibility.
Thanks to a fundraising edge, Kaine has already purchased $2.5 million in TV time for the fall, when the airwaves will be cluttered with political advertising. Both national Senate campaign committees have reserved time in the state as well, and the Allen team will likely begin taking that step now that the primary is over.
For all the messaging over the past year and a half, public polling still shows the race is a dead heat. A Quinnipiac University poll released last week showed Kaine with 44 percent, Allen with 43 percent and 10 percent undecided. Quinnipiac assistant polling director Peter Brown said the race “is so close that whatever small margin of victory occurs could well be based on whether” Obama or Romney has coattails.
Both Senate campaigns believe their messages will help win over the independent voters in exurban Northern Virginia and suburban Richmond that will likely swing the election. But the campaigns are also quietly benefiting from the voter turnout programs run primarily by the presidential campaigns and national parties.
The Obama campaign opened its 16th office in the state Saturday in Norfolk, continuing its focus on voter turnout and mobilization. It has essentially been on the ground for the past three years, long before Obama officially kicked off his re-election last year.
Republicans have nine coordinated campaign offices open, plus the Romney campaign state headquarters, and plan to continue growing in the state. Despite the lack of a competitive presidential primary in Virginia, the Romney campaign began building an infrastructure of surrogates, a finance operation, volunteers and voter contact information.
One of Obama’s two general election campaign kickoff events on May 5 was at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Two days earlier, Romney held one of his first events as the presumptive nominee in Portsmouth alongside McDonnell.
“The Obama campaign really has spent a lot already, and I would expect the Romney campaign will see what everyone else sees — and I know they do — that Virginia is pivotal,” Allen said in Ashburn on Monday. “I can’t see anyone getting elected president without carrying Virginia.”
Meredith Shiner contributed to this report.