Former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine is trying to pull off a rare feat for a Democrat: running to the right of his GOP rival on fiscal matters.
Kaine, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, pitches himself as the penny-pinching candidate and casts George Allen, a former GOP governor and senator, as the budget-busting alternative. It’s not just a passing fancy, but a central theme of Kaine’s candidacy.
Senior Kaine strategist Mo Elleithee calls it a “defining issue.” Allen’s camp has another word for it: disingenuous.
As the election nears, the jockeying for the mantle of fiscal conservative has been done so far on the campaign trail and on the airwaves. It will be done face-to-face next week when Kaine and Allen square off in a debate.
Allen’s campaign is incredulous about the line of attack. “Being lectured by Tim Kaine on deficits and debts, and at the national level, is ridiculous when you look at his unabashed support of the president,” said senior strategist Dan Allen, who is no relation to the candidate.
But lecturing is what Kaine has done in his first wave of television ads. First, he touted cutting $5 billion from the state budget. Then, in an ad unveiled this week, he filleted Allen for increasing spending as governor and ballooning the federal deficit as well as voting to raise his own pay as senator (although both Allen and Kaine cut their own pay as governor). “Now that’s a real difference,” Kaine says, looking into the camera, his blue shirtsleeves rolled up.
It is the inverse of the debate playing out between the two parties in most states. Elsewhere, Republicans tag Democrats as free-spending liberals, while Democrats accuse the GOP of cutting critical programs.
But in Virginia, Allen and his allies are counter-attacking Kaine for the severity of his spending cuts, particularly to education. A new television ad released this week by Crossroads GPS, the Karl Rove-backed outside group, accused Kaine of making “harsh funding cuts” to schools, quoting a Democrat calling them a “kick in the teeth.” Allen has used the same message in targeted mail pieces.
Of course, each side insists the other is distorting the record of its candidate. Allen’s team says he is, in fact, the deficit hawk (and that Kaine tried to raise taxes). And Kaine, who has made promoting a “talent” society a key plank of his Senate bid, says he would be the protector of education (and that Allen actually tried, unsuccessfully, for deeper education cuts as governor).
Still, the broad reversal of party roles in fiscal positioning is jarring. It can be explained, in part, by the fact that the Senate race features two former governors who served during vastly different economic times.
Allen governed during the go-go 1990s, as the economy boomed and the government, funded by a growing tax base, grew along with it. “The nation and the state couldn’t spend the money that was coming in fast enough,” said Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University in Virginia.
Kaine, meanwhile, was sworn in as governor in 2006, soon before the financial bubble burst. His budget-cutting was driven largely by a combination of Virginia’s constitutional requirement for a balanced budget and the evaporation of tax revenues thanks to the recession that hit late in his term. “Kaine doesn’t have the great fiscal environment to point to while he was governor,” Kidd said.
But by running as a fiscal hawk, Kaine is trying to turn on its head the conventional wisdom that Allen would benefit politically because he served in boom times whereas Kaine governed during a downturn.
In fact, the economic growth under Allen has become a Kaine talking point: “He grew spending by more than 45 percent, despite having campaigned as a small-government conservative,” Elleithee said of Allen.
And Allen is ripping a page from the traditional Democratic playbook, criticizing Kaine for slashing popular items such as higher education. Allen often talks on the trail about how tuition at Virginia colleges grew by 30 percent during Kaine’s tenure, while in his own tenure he “froze tuition.”
“[Kaine] talks about setting priorities, but when he had the opportunity, he cut higher education significantly,” Dan Allen said.
Kaine and his Democratic allies, meanwhile, want to focus on Allen’s years in the Senate. It was the era of President George W. Bush, and Allen was a reliable vote as the federal government and deficit expanded dramatically. “Talk is cheap,” said Elleithee, “but George Allen’s record is not.”
This story is part of a series. The National Journal Big 10 focuses on important and representative House and Senate races. The composition of the Big 10 may change as circumstances warrant.