ASHLAND, Va. — Former Gov. Tim Kaine refrained from busting out his harmonica last week on a stage usually crowded by bluegrass bands at Ashland Coffee and Tea.
The Democrat had been there before, celebrating the Saturday after the 2008 elections for what turned out to be the last show blues duo Cephas & Wiggins would ever play. But on this overcast day in a Democratic pocket of a heavily Republican county, the Senate candidate was here to rev up his base and encourage supporters to reach out to undecided voters, which he pegged at potentially 3 percent of the electorate with less than a week to go.
“This is a fairly red part of the state, but a vote here is the same as a vote in Arlington,” Kaine said in an interview. “And sometimes in a red part, it’s two votes, because it’s a vote out of the other column and into yours.”
The final week of a campaign usually transforms into purely a get-out-the-vote operation, but in a race this close, neither Kaine nor his opponent former Gov. George Allen (R) can afford to push persuasion aside just yet.
They have spent the past week crisscrossing the state for a mixture of grass-roots rallies, presidential campaign events, local business tours and meet-and-greets. Behind the scenes, their campaigns have worked in concert with the campaigns of President Barack Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney, respectively, to ensure their own supporters will be going to the polls tomorrow and to find those few remaining undecided voters.
The Republican coordinated operation was overhauled after 2008, when the Obama campaign exploited the holes in the GOP’s operation and Obama became the first Democrat to carry Virginia since 1964. This year, House, Senate and presidential voter contact projects all run through a central Victory office, which has translated into 5.5 million personal contacts and more than 1 million door-knocks statewide, party officials said.
“We learned a lesson four years ago, and for the last four years each time we’ve had an election we’ve built on that,” state GOP Chairman Pat Mullins said in an interview on Thursday at a Romney-Allen rally north of Richmond. “If they turn out the way we think they’re going to turn out, we’ll be fine.”
Every GOP canvass has been on behalf of all three levels of campaigns, an efficient strategy that allows for the sharing of resources and encourages straight-ticket voting. Allen made that case to the Republicans who showed up to his second of three events with Romney last week, with this one held on the farmland where 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat was born.
Allen has banked his campaign on shepherding the independents voting against Obama to check his box in the Senate race as well. That has meant a constant drumbeat of tying Kaine, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, to Obama.
“The key to the winner’s circle is Mitt Romney,” Allen told the crowd in Doswell, analogizing victories for himself, Romney and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) to the Triple Crown.
Cantor is in a safe race and doesn’t need Romney to win, but Allen, who is seeking the seat he lost in 2006, almost certainly does. The only question is by how much. The Kaine campaign has been working for the past 18 months to ensure the former governor, lieutenant governor and Richmond mayor has a chance even if Romney carries the state.
The Obama campaign’s turnout efforts have allowed the Kaine campaign to hone in on a slightly different “universe” of voters it believes could support both Romney and Kaine.
“We’re hoping as many Virginians as possible cast ballots for both President Obama and Gov. Kaine,” Kaine senior adviser Mo Elleithee said. “But for those Romney supporters out there that are still undecided, we’re going to make the case to them as well that if you really want to break through the partisan gridlock, Tim Kaine’s your guy.”
Obama delivered the same message Saturday night at a late night rally in northern Virginia.
“Virginia, if you want to break the gridlock in Congress, you’ll vote for leaders like Tim Kaine who feel the same way, whether they’re Democrats, Republicans or independents — leaders who will put people first and put the election aside for a moment,” Obama told the crowd of 24,000.
Electorate Growing More Diverse
The Kaine campaign believes it has pulled out to a slight lead after 18 months of running even with Allen. In the final weeks of the campaign, it has focused its persuasion efforts on women, senior citizens and some of the new communities of voters who have entered the electorate since 2008 and are tuning into the race late.
They are “doubling down” on their field efforts in suburban counties like Henrico, which is outside Richmond, and the Northern Virginia counties of Loudoun and Prince William. The latter is where Kaine joined Obama Saturday night for the president’s final campaign stop in Virginia.
Kaine campaign manager Mike Henry said that about 200,000 new registrants are on the voter file. Voters don’t register by party in Virginia, so it’s impossible to be certain how beneficial they will be. But, Henry said, the electorate is “growing more diverse, which definitely is helpful to us.”
Henry said the campaign will continue its persuasion efforts up until Election Day. He described it as a “sandwich” program, where potential swing voters are first contacted by phone to get them interested in Kaine. Then they receive direct mail with a targeted message, and after that the voter receives a follow-up phone call to “really drive home that message.”
The Republican-coordinated campaign has also made efforts to reach out to swing voters and “soft Democrats.”
“I can tell when [the phone banks] switch universes,” state party spokesman Garren Shipley said. “My answering machine at the office will be filled up with 20 people, ‘Don’t you ever call me again, I am a hard, dedicated Democrat.’ We’ve been very, very aggressive.”
The $50 Million Campaign
The Kaine campaign views the “one-on-one” approach to the field program as vital to help cut through the noise and hold off the nonstop attacks on the airwaves. Nationwide, this race is second only to the presidential in terms of the amount of outside spending. Including party committees, super PACs and nonprofits, more than $50 million has been spent on the Virginia Senate race, including $28 million against Kaine and $19 million against Allen, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The outside spending has helped Allen, who has been outraised and outspent by Kaine. As Kaine added another $1 million to his media buy, Allen opened a $500,000 line of credit in the closing days to help cover late donations and fund the remainder of his campaign.
In Ashland on Wednesday, former Hanover County Supervisor John Gordon, who left the Republican Party the previous day, officially endorsed Kaine. On Thursday, Wayne Hazzard, the conservative Republican who ousted Gordon, was at the Romney-Allen event in Doswell and made the argument against split-ticket voting that the Allen campaign has been hammering home since early last year.
“I just find it hard to believe if you’re a Republican voting for Gov. Romney that you’re going to switch over and vote for Kaine,” Hazzard said. “There’s no one person that has represented Obama more than Kaine.”
Dave and Diane Stoakley left the Kaine event in Ashland with campaign signs in hand. They’re exactly the kind of moderate and potential swing voters Kaine has sought with his constant message of the need for compromise on Capitol Hill. Both in their early 60s, they used to vote for Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) before he retired in 2008.
But they were turned off this year by the new Republican majority in the state Legislature that, the Stoakleys said, pivoted to focus on social issues.
“Compromise — from a Republican perspective, that’s a dirty word,” Diane Stoakley said. “I think we have far two few statesmen. Kaine is one who still tries to fit that role.”