Susan Allen and Anne Holton are not on the ballot this November in Virginia. Their husbands are. But to watch as Virginia’s Senate race has unfolded this year, you could be forgiven for getting a little confused.
The two former first ladies of Virginia have been a constant presence on the trail. Each has her own dedicated staff as they zigzag across the state at a dizzying pace that has sometimes even outstripped that of their candidate husbands, former Govs. George Allen and Tim Kaine. Susan Allen has toured veterans hospitals and homes, visited small businesses, hosted roundtables, and rallied activists at phone banks. And that was just on Monday. Anne Holton has been visiting community colleges and small businesses of late, and is the star of Kaine’s latest radio ad.
Together, they are the campaigns’ not-so-secret weapons. In no other congressional race in America are political plus-ones playing anywhere near as outsized a role. “In all the 35 years I’ve been doing this, I’d be hard-pressed to think of another race where both spouses are as active as they are in Virginia,” said Steve Jarding, a Democratic strategist who advised Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., during his successful run against Allen six years ago. “You just don’t see that.”
The wives’ significance has only grown as it has become clear that Kaine, a Democrat, and Allen, a Republican, are both focusing on suburban women and independents as a potential tipping point in the election—groups with whom, they both hope, their wives can be effective ambassadors.
Control of the U.S. Senate may be at stake. As Senate races in Missouri and New Mexico have moved further from the Republicans’ reach, Virginia has become an essential part of GOP efforts to retake the chamber. In August, the top strategists for both the GOP and Democratic Senate campaign arms named Virginia as one of the two most critical races in the country. (The other race: Massachusetts.)
What has made Susan Allen and Anne Holton particularly potent surrogates is that they arrived on the 2012 campaign trail with public profiles of their own from their years as first ladies, as well as a Rolodex of contacts from having spent lifetimes around politics.
Allen is a political spouse straight from Hollywood central casting. Her husband was a high school and college quarterback; she was a cheerleader (although they met later). George roams the trail in cowboy boots; she wears stylish heels. With a warm and constant smile, Susan appears to relish her time campaigning. Well-spoken and poised, she has been advocating for George for a quarter-century, since his days in the Virginia House of Delegates. The rare times when he has not been on the ballot, she has still been involved, chairing the Virginia chapter of Women for McCain-Palin in 2008.
Since the start of the campaign, Susan Allen has made more than 250 solo campaign stops, according to the Allen campaign. She had 26 events on her public schedule this month through Tuesday; George Allen had 14. He likes to joke that as far back as his run for governor in 1993, people sported buttons that said, “Elect Susan Allen’s Husband.”
Jarding said that Susan also makes her husband a better candidate. “He was softer when she was around,” he said, smoothing out “a hard edge George can have.” In 2006, when Allen stumbled after calling a video tracker “macaca,” it was Susan Allen who was rolled out in a two-minute television ad to try to repair his image.
The pair’s affection is palpable on the trail. “Aren’t I lucky?” the former governor beamed, when asked about his wife earlier this year. “I’m very lucky,” she corrected him. “I’m the luckiest,” he insisted.
Kaine feels the same way. He said that Holton, his wife of 28 years, is “the best asset I have.” The 2012 campaign has been a coming-out party, of sorts, for Holton, who has been a behind-the-scenes player for much of Kaine’s political ascent, from Richmond mayor to lieutenant governor to governor. This is the first statewide race in which she has been on the trail, because she was previously a juvenile-court judge and abstained from campaigning. She hung up her judicial robe in 2006, as Kaine was sworn in as governor. She has appeared at more than 100 campaign events in 2012.
“It’s really nice having her on the trail,” Kaine said. “Often, she can do events that I can’t do, and I find that, when she does, they don’t ask me back—they ask her back.”
Holton is hardly new to the spotlight. Her father, Linwood Holton, was sworn in as the Republican governor of Virginia in 1970, and she moved into the Governor’s Mansion at the age of 12. She soon was swept up in a national news story, when her father enrolled her in Richmond’s mostly black public schools in a show of support for a federal desegregation court order. “It was an important formative experience,” she recalled in an interview this week. Kaine said that her public upbringing is an asset: “The political family—it prepared her.”
Although the Virginia airwaves are cluttered with PAC-fueled mudslinging, none of it has splattered on either of the former first ladies. They’ve been left free to crisscross the state, without rebuke or engagement from the other side. Holton said of Susan, “I’m sure she would agree with me that I consider us friends.” It’s just that each hopes the other’s husband is unemployed come January.
This article appears in the Sep. 22, 2012, edition of National Journal.