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Va. Senate: We've Got a Real Race

After months of puzzling over whether Jim Webb's (D) challenge to Sen. George Allen (R) was real or not, we now have an answer: It is.

A new independent poll conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc. was released over the weekend. It showed Allen ahead of Webb 46 percent to 42 percent, with 12 percent undecided. While a number of other surveys had been released since Webb's June primary victory, we had yet to see numbers from an established pollster that showed the contest this close. In fact, a July Mason-Dixon survey showed Allen ahead 48 percent to 32 percent.

What's happened to move the numbers? The answer is simple: Macaca. Allen has been on the defensive since making the now infamous remark -- never a good place to be if you are an incumbent seeking re-election.

The Mason-Dixon poll reflects the damage done to Allen's image since July. His unfavorable rating has climbed from 23 percent to 31 percent; his favorable image also dropped from 49 percent to 41 percent. Meanwhile Webb has become better known with 28 percent of voters viewing him favorably and seven percent unfavorably. He remains unknown to 22 percent of the state's voters -- down from 33 percent in the July poll.

Asked specifically about the "Macaca" incident, three percent of those surveyed said they would not vote for Allen because of it, while 37 percent said they were not planning to support Allen anyway and the comment reinforced their view. Sixteen percent said they disapproved of Allen's comment but they would back him anyway, while 26 percent said the remark was "not that serious" and they would vote for Allen.

The true impact of "macaca", however, is not that it ensured Allen would lose. What it did was jumpstart a Webb campaign that appeared dead in the water as late as early August. Webb's fundraising willl surely improve with the national exposure, and he now has the full attention of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, who will need to play in the state in order to equalize Allen's fundraising edge.

"There is no doubt this race is competitive," acknowledged Allen campaign manager Dick Wadhams before adding that his candidate's political base and financial advantage ($6.6 million on hand to Webb's $424,000 at the end of June) will ensure that the incumbent wins a second term.

Kristian Denny, a consultant to the Webb campaign, says they have "always maintained the more people got to know the real George Allen, the less they'd like him."

The other intriguing element of the Mason-Dixon survey is the influence of Webb's performance in northern Virginia relative to his statewide showing. Northern Virginia was the one region where Webb led Allen (51 percent to 38 percent); Webb failed to top 42 percent in the state's five other geographic regions. In fact, in Shenandoah/Piedmont, Richmond Metro, and Lynchburg/Southside, Webb didn't get more than 30 percent of the vote. Northern Virginia is growing like gangbusters and becoming more and more Democratic (as evidence by Gov. Tim Kaine's win there last year). The larger number of votes northern Virginia casts, the better for Webb.

Democrats have reason to be optimistic about this race. Webb has made up significant ground without running a single ad -- an amazing feat in a state as large as Virginia. Webb is now up with a relatively small buy in the Hampton Roads, Roanoke, and Washington (D.C.) media markets. The ad highlights positive comments made by former President Ronald Reagan about Webb, who served as secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration. The ad has generated a huge amount of controversy and attention -- former First Lady Nancy Reagan has asked Webb to remove the commercial and the Allen campaign has condemned it. Whatever you think of the ad, it has made sure that people not acquainted with Webb know he once worked for Reagan without forcing the Democrat to spend heavily from his campaign warchest.

For all of the race's tightening, however, Webb remains little more than a resume -- albeit a very impressive one -- to voters. Over the final 50+ days of this campaign, he must show a knack for grassroots campaigning that we have yet to see from him. And, while he is not likely to match Allen's spending dollar-for-dollar, he needs to stay within financial shouting distance of the incumbent to have a real chance.

Tune in here Friday to see whether Virginia cracks the latest Senate Line. Here's a look at our last Senate rankings.

By Chris Cillizza  |  September 12, 2006; 8:14 AM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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