Virginia is for Lovers—and Politicos

George Allen's battle for redemption may be the closest, and most important, race in the country

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This year, political operatives aren't going to have to travel far to see the most interesting—and likely closest and most pivotal—senate race in the country.

A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday confirms yet again that the probable Virginia match up between former Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine and former Republican Sen. George Allen in Virginia is still in a dead heat, with both candidates within the margin of error. It's not a new position for either candidate. Since last May, 12 different polls have shown the contest to be effectively tied.

"It's not only the country's marquee race, but it is arguably the nation's closest race," says Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia. "I can't remember 12 polls in a row showing a tie."

The race pits two Virginia political titans, who have both been elected to state-wide office before, in a bellwether race which could decide whether or not Democrats keep the Senate. With Democrats losing seats to retirement, their only shot to keep a majority will be to win in matchups like Virginia—and the close numbers ensure that both parties will likely empty their wallets to tip the scales.

On the left side is Tim Kaine, the former Richmond mayor who defeated Jerry Kilgore in 2005 to become governor. Rumored to be high on Barack Obama's short list of possible vice presidential candidates, Kaine served as head of the Democratic National Committee before leaving to begin the Senate race.

In the other corner is George Allen, a man once considered to be presidential timber before an unguarded moment sank his political career.

Allen, the son of former Washington Redskins coach George Herbert Allen, was a popular former governor finishing out his first Senate term, and prepping himself for a possible presidential run in 2006, with a re-election race seeming like a minor obstacle. The Democratic nominee, former Secretary of the Navy Jim Webb, campaigned surprisingly well while Allen self-destructed. While being taped by an Indian-American volunteer for Webb at a campaign event, Allen called the tracker "macaca," which critics claimed was a French racial insult.

[See the Top 5 GOP Candidate Gaffes of 2011.]

Despite Allen's denials that he meant any offense, the incident rekindled long-simmering questions about Allen's racial sensitivity, and contributed to Allen's razor-thin loss during a year when Democrats swept control of the House and Senate. Despite his high stature as a new breed of Democrat, Webb ultimately decided to forgo re-election, giving Allen a chance to redeem himself and re-capture his own seat.

Kaine has already referred to the race as Allen's "re-election" campaign—part of his overall rhetorical strategy to shift the discussion to Allen's record in the Senate, connecting it with the current state of affairs in Washington.

"We don't have to blame George Bush," a Virginia Democratic strategist says. "We can blame George Allen, because he was there. This is his re-election campaign."

Allen's campaign, meanwhile, has been tying Kaine to President Obama, hoping that an Obama tumble will likewise sink Kaine. An Allen TV ad highlight's Kaine's statement that he is an "unabashed" Obama supporter, tying it in with the administration's refusal to move forward on the Keystone XL Pipeline project.

With two well-known political figures going head-to-head, most political observers are expecting the candidates to remain close up to Election Day, due to the fact that Virginia voters are more than familiar with each candidate.

[See pictures of the 2012 GOP candidates.]

"I'd be surprised if there were any fluctuations," says one GOP operative, adding that in all likelihood, the party which wins Virginia in the presidential race will also pick up the Senate win as well. "It's hard to imagine that there are a lot of Obama-Allen voters."

Virginia's long history as a Republican stronghold has weakened in recent years, as the Washington, D.C. metro area has expanded into the northern area of the state, along with the southern Tidewater region, anchored by the naval base in Norfolk, which has seen an influx of highly educated voters. That makes the issue of government spending—both domestic and military—especially important, not just a theoretical matter, but tied into the local economy and jobs.