Labor Battle at Center of Virginia Senate Race

Labor Battle at Center of Virginia Senate Race

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - July 7, 2011

The new Boeing Dreamliner plant in North Charleston, S.C., is a few hundred miles from George Allen's campaign headquarters in Richmond, but if Allen and the Old Dominion's GOP have their way, the bitter battle between the airline manufacturer and the National Labor Relations Board will help determine Virginia's next U.S. senator.

That race, expected to be among the most expensive and competitive of 2012 U.S. Senate contests, most likely will pit Allen, a former Virginia governor and senator, against Tim Kaine, who also served a term as Virginia governor and who most recently chaired the Democratic National Committee. The two are vying for the seat held by Democrat Jim Webb, who chose not to seek re-election after just one term.

Five years ago, George Allen was a popular Republican senator often talked about in conservative circles as a potential presidential candidate. His near-certain path to re-election was compromised when he referred to a 20-year-old Democratic volunteer as "a macaca" at a political rally. The volunteer, then a University of Virginia student who worked for Webb's campaign, is of Indian ancestry, and the previously unheard-of term was widely perceived as an ethnic slur.

Allen later apologized, but he paid for the gaffe with his Senate seat. (He repented again at a Faith and Freedom Coalition conference last month.) Now he is attempting a comeback based not on personality but on curbing spending, growing jobs and allowing businesses to be more competitive. Specifically the GOP candidate is invoking a specter that's also been a feature of the presidential contest: Democrats' close ties to Big Labor.

Allen's campaign is seeking to capitalize on a lawsuit filed by the National Labor Relations Board against Boeing for opening new manufacturing plants in South Carolina instead of in Washington state, partly to avoid the labor trouble that has prompted recent strikes by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. The machinists union sued Boeing, alleging that moving some of its manufacturing operations to a right-to-work state was a form of retaliation prohibited by federal law.

This would seem to be an issue for President Obama to address, and not Tim Kaine, who never challenged Virginia's status as a right-to-work state when he was a governor and yet managed to keep good relations with organized labor. Except that earlier this year, the Obama-nominated National Labor Relations Board sided with the machinists union, putting the future of the South Carolina plant at risk, stirring up the politics of right-to-work states and handing conservatives across the country a timely campaign issue.

Perhaps no Democrat is put in a more uncomfortable position than Kaine. He can't speak against the board because he supported pro-union rallies in Wisconsin earlier this year as DNC chair. But he can't back the machinists lawsuit either because he very publicly supported Virginia's right-to-work law when he governed the state.

Allen and Kaine are in a virtual dead heat, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll of Virginia voters. On Tuesday, Kaine's camp announced that the Democrat, who entered the Senate race in April, had raised $2.25 million in the second quarter with contributions from roughly 4,600 people. The details of the donations won't be made available until after the July 15 filing deadline, so it's impossible to tell at this point how much of that money comes from labor.

Surely Team Allen will cull through those records when they are public. Meanwhile, the Allen campaign isn't waiting around. Kaine's war chest, it says, is being filled by special interests who "know that Chairman Kaine would be a reliable vote in the Senate for President Obama and the Washington Democrats' pro-spending, pro-union, pro-big government policies."

Kaine's campaign and his allies among the state's labor bosses profess to being unworried about the NLRB case shaping the race. "Governor Kaine has been candid with us and told us and let us know that he does support Virginia's right-to-work law," says Doris Crouse-Mays, president of the Virginia chapter of the AFL-CIO. "But he also understands that if workers want to have a union, they should be able to go through the process and have a union and workers should have rights. What's the most upsetting is when people tell us they're not for something, but then they change their mind about it."

And when union leaders do get upset about a candidate flip-flopping on them, they can pour a lot of money into a primary challenger. Just ask former Sen. Blanche Lincoln. The Democrat was challenged in the 2010 Democratic primary in Arkansas, where unions spent roughly $10 million backing their preferred candidate, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, against her. Lincoln, who opposed a card check bill that would have made it easier for unions to organize workers, edged Halter in a run-off. But her chances to retain her seat were already endangered, and she lost handily to Republican Rep. John Boozman in November.

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Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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