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In Debate, "47 Percent" Puts Kaine, Allen on the Spot

In Debate, "47 Percent" Puts Kaine, Allen on the Spot

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - September 20, 2012


MCLEAN, Va. -- Mitt Romney's controversial comments regarding "the 47 percent" of Americans who don't pay federal income tax came to the fore in Virginia's U.S. Senate race debate here Thursday. In the face-off between two former Old Dominion governors, the issue put both candidates in a tricky spot.

The moderator, NBC's David Gregory, kicked of the debate by noting that over 1 million Virginians do not pay federal income tax, and asked Democrat Tim Kaine whether he believed everyone in the state should pay something in that regard. “I would be open to a proposal that has some minimum tax level for everyone, but I do insist: Many of the 47 percent that Governor Romney was going after pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes than he does.”

Earlier this week, in a video from a Romney fundraiser that was posted online, the Republican presidential nominee told donors that the 47 percent of people who don’t pay federal income tax are dependent upon government entitlement programs, and will not support him under any circumstances. The comments ignited a firestorm and many Republicans distanced themselves from Romney on the issue. Many of those who do not pay federal income taxes are members of the military, seniors, or low-income residents, but all pay some kind of levy in the form of state, local or payroll taxes.

Kaine dismissed Romney’s comments as “condescending. The last thing we need to do at this moment is to divide people against each other.” Such is the theme of the former DNC chairman’s campaign: uniting Virginians, and forging compromises in Washington. But saying he would consider a federal income tax on everyone raised eyebrows -- for one thing, he hadn’t mentioned this idea before -- and could raise concern among voters at a time when the idea of raising taxes is unfavorable, especially amid a struggling economy and during an election year.

After the debate, sponsored by the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce, Kaine told reporters his response was consistent with his campaign theme. “It shouldn’t be news that someone who wants to go into the Senate is willing to start from a position of openness in the dialogue,” he said. “I’ve got a track record: When I was governor we raised the thresholds and took tens of thousands of low-income Virginians off the tax roll, and that was the right thing to do under those circumstances, but we can’t start with non-negotiable. So when my opponent says we have to solve problems but can never consider any new revenue . . . you’ve got to start with an openness.”

Kaine’s preferred plan, he pointed out in the debate, would be to let the Bush tax cuts expire for those who earn over $500,000 in annual income, and to end tax credits for oil companies.

Republicans quickly used Kaine’s answer to paint him as favoring tax increases. Allen told reporters afterward that the comment was “typical of Tim Kaine because his record is of one always wanting to raise taxes.” The National Senatorial Campaign Committee released a Web video Thursday afternoon that featured a video clip from the debate. "The fact that Kaine believes that Washington should raise taxes on every Virginian, regardless of their income level or economic situation, is breathtaking to say the least," said NRSC spokesman Brian Walsh.

But Allen was forced into a difficult situation himself when pressed by Gregory about Romney’s “47 percent” statement and whether he parts ways with the GOP nominee on this issue. “I have my own point of view,” Allen said finally, after repeated questions on the subject. ”My view is that people of America still believe in the American Dream. . . . They don’t look at themselves as victims.” Allen said later he believes “99 percent” of Virginians will back him if they drive a car or pay an electric bill or wrestle with other costs.

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

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