The Most Interesting Race Being Ignored This Year

The Senate battle between Tim Kaine and George Allen might as well be a battle for town council.


The race to replace Virginia Sen. Jim Webb is one of the most closely watched contests in the nation, according to every second news story about it. If that is true, then nobody must be paying any attention at all to the other campaigns. In the past month the battle between Tim Kaine and George Allen has garnered one New York Times blog post, nothing in the LA Times or the Chicago Tribune, two mentions by National Review, one in the Weekly Standard, and nothing in The Nation or The New Republic. Even political websites like The Daily Caller, the Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo, and RedState are giving it a pass.

This might be owing in part to the care the candidates—both former governors—are taking. Kaine's speech to the Democratic National Convention was so safe as to be soporific. Allen, lacerated for his "macaca" gaffe six years ago, has stuck closely to script. Still: The race is so tight it resembles the 2000 Florida recount, where the margin of error was greater than the margin of victory. What's more, the candidates have long records to run on—and against.

Take Kaine. Contrary to an ad by the Karl Rove-backed Crossroads GPS, Kaine was not a big-spending governor. As PolitiFact Virginia points out, overall state spending during his tenure rose 9 percent after adjusting for inflation. The average for each of Kaine's six predecessors  was 16 percent. Much of Kaine's increase took place in the non-general fund, which is made up of elements (college tuition, federal pass-throughs) over which the governor has limited control. With his hand forced by recession-induced revenue shortfalls and the state's balanced-budget requirement, Kaine actually cut general-fund spending by 2 percent. In short, Kaine was no ordinary tax-and-spend liberal.

But he sure wanted to be.

During his run for governor, Kaine repeatedly insisted he would not seek a tax hike before the resultant funds were secured for transportation only. "Until we lock up the transportation fund, I'm not talking about new revenues," he vowed. "I will veto any tax increase unless the transportation trust fund is locked up," he swore. "I'm very clear on this. I'm not going to ask people for any more revenue when there's no guarantee that the revenue will go to transportation," he insisted. The Washington Post reported that Kaine "will veto any tax increases for roads until the state passes a constitutional amendment" setting aside the revenue for roads.

Six days after taking office, and with no lockbox in sight, Kaine proposed a $1 billion tax hike. He subsequently threatened to hold lawmakers in an extended legislative session if they did not raise taxes.

On social issues, Kaine stuck to a middle course that pleased nobody. During debate over Virginia's marriage amendment, Kaine (a devout Catholic) said he believed (a) marriage is properly a union of man and woman, but (b) the amendment went too far. He supported adoption by couples straight or gay, but opposed adoption by unmarried couples. That effectively foreclosed gay adoption, since gay couples could not marry. (Kaine modulated that view this May.)

Allen's gubernatorial term was far less fiscally focused; in his final year he even played Santa Claus with a state surplus. But it was consumed with other divisive issues on which the Republican was, largely, correct. He powered through a work-based welfare reform law before Bill Clinton took up the cause. He supported school choice and charter schools. Ahead of the national trend again, Allen also set a floor for academic accountability by establishing rigorous and measurable Standards of Learning – and was bitterly denounced for it at the time.

Even more bitter opposition met Allen's proposal to abolish parole. Critics vilified the idea as racist and cruel. Yet Allen recognized the inverse relationship between incarceration and crime: Between 1950 and 1980, the probability of incarceration for serious crimes fell from 5.27 percent to 1.57 percent. During the same period, the serious-crime rate soared from 5 per 1,000 citizens to 22.8 per 1,000 citizens. As the probability of imprisonment began to rise again, crime began to fall.

To many liberals, all this was a profound enigma: "Prison Population Growing Although Crime Rate Drops," reported a mystified New York Times in 1998. "America's prison population grew again in 2002 despite a declining crime rate," mused a baffled AP five years later. (Sixty years ago the headlines probably read: "Vaccinations Rising Despite Diminishing Polio Epidemic.") 

Allen's Senate tenure, by contrast, was a cipher. The Republican complained that the chamber moved at "the pace of a wounded sea slug"—perhaps unaware that this is a feature, not a bug. And as dissatisfied conservatives pointed out, Allen voted to raise the debt ceiling four times; supported the Medicare prescription-drug benefit; and cheerfully approved thousands of pork-barrel projects.

Some voters, too, may be put off by the California-raised Allen's public persona as a boot-wearin' Son of Dixie who loves America so gosh-darn much he could almost spit—not to mention his relentless football references: The other day he even called his wife Susan his campaign's Most Valuable Player. And Democrats—who long ago forgave Jesse Jackson's "hymietown" remark and Joe Biden's amazement that Barack Obama is not only "articulate" but also (mirabile dictu!) "clean"—will not let anyone forget the Macaca Misstep.

Interesting as all this is, the contest has been subsumed by the national referendum on President Obama. It is hard to imagine many people voting Romney-Kaine or, harder still, Obama-Allen. And the president, who pleaded with Kaine to run the DNC, also had to cajole him into running for the Senate. Hence a final irony: Despite his enthusiasm for government, Kaine would just as soon stay out of it—while Allen, who believes government should be only a marginal part of American life, cannot wait to get back in.

This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.