Sequester Defense Cuts Loom Large in Va. Senate Race

Sequester Defense Cuts Loom Large in Va. Senate Race

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - July 25, 2012

The threat of steep job losses in Virginia if Congress fails to reach a deal to avert debt limit-related defense cuts figures to play a major role in the U.S. Senate race there, as both candidates have seized the issue and blamed the other for it.

As the home to military bases, veterans and defense contractors, the state faces the highest number of potential layoffs among the key battleground states, according to a report by George Mason University and Chmura Economics and Analytics, which projects more than 207,000 jobs at stake. Virginia has among the lowest unemployment rates -- 5.6 percent -- of vital states in the election, which observers have said could help the president in November. But the looming threat of pink slips could counter that narrative.

Republican candidate George Allen took to the airwaves Monday in an attempt to make the threatened cuts a defining issue in his race against Democrat Tim Kaine. The Allen campaign called the possible job losses “devastating” in a 30-second ad, and introduced Allen as the candidate who would protect jobs and national security. “We work hard in Virginia pulling our weight, making our way back. But a storm is coming,” the ad’s narrator says. Allen doesn’t mention his opponent in the spot, but he has attacked Kaine for supporting the congressional deal that could trigger the cuts. (The Allen campaign purchased $52,000 in ad time for the week, according to a source tracking such buys in the state.) 

Last August, Congress voted to expand the nation’s debt ceiling in order to avoid going into default. The deal authorized a bipartisan committee to find ways to cut $1.2 trillion from the deficit over the next 10 years, but the panel was unable to reach an agreement. The automatic cuts, known as sequestration and including $500 billion to defense, are scheduled to begin in January if Congress doesn’t find other places to trim. Defense contractors across the country are already preparing for layoffs.

In Saturday’s general-election debate in Hot Springs, Va., Kaine called the debt-ceiling deal “the right thing to do,” while Allen argued that defense “should never be used as a bargaining tool to raise taxes.” On a conference call with reporters Monday, Virginia Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling called the sequester the most important economic issue facing Virginia, and said Kaine "was given every chance to reject it and he didn't. He was given every chance to back off of it and he didn't. Again, he in essence doubled down on his support of sequestration. I can only interpret that as meaning that he shares the view of Democrats in Washington that he would rather see the nation go off a fiscal cliff than get this issue right.”

Given the specific impact that the sequester would have on Virginia, Allen unsurprisingly pounced. But his argument against Kaine is undercut somewhat because Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a fellow Virginian, voted in favor of the August stopgap measure that included the sequester threat. Virginia Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell also backed the deal, and a handful of Republican members of Virginia’s congressional delegation also voted for the debt-ceiling increase.

Also, Kaine has said he supported the debt deal to avoid default, but has called for Congress to look for a solution to the sequestration cuts. The Democrat’s campaign blamed Allen for the current budget dilemma.

"Let's be clear how we got here. As a U.S. Senator, George Allen took a record budget surplus and turned it into a massive deficit, voted for trillions in new spending, and voted four times to raise the debt ceiling without cutting a dime in spending,” Brandi Hoffine, Kaine’s communications director, said in a statement. The campaign released a Web video that features a clip of Allen, in a Fox News interview, encouraging conservatives to use the debt ceiling vote as leverage for serious deficit cuts. The Kaine campaign also pointed to a new Government Accountability Office report saying that last year’s debt-ceiling standoff cost taxpayers $1.3 billion.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are scrambling to find a way around the deep cuts -- about $100 billion in defense and domestic program reductions would be triggered next year -- before the November election because of the likely fallout associated with heightened job losses. Republicans are at odds over whether revenue increases should be included in any solution, but given that neither Kaine nor Allen is currently in the Senate and won’t be bound to current votes, messaging will be key in Virginia.

If Congress fails to reach a deal, “a lot of people are going to be blamed for it and Allen is going to make sure Tim Kaine gets his fair share of it” by tying him to support for the sequester, says Virginia-based Republican strategist Chris LaCivita. LaCivita says that by airing ads, Allen has gotten ahead on the issue, and it conveys that “[Kaine] defended the cuts, defended where we are, and Allen is saying this is bad and going to hurt Virginia’s economy.”

Democrats will paint Allen as refusing to compromise, citing Saturday’s debate in which the GOP nominee said he would not support a proposal that included $10 in cuts for each $1 in revenue increases. 

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

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