The U.S. Senate contest in Virginia between Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican George Allen is far and away the most expensive Senate race in the country in terms of third-party spending, underscoring the closeness of a race that's essentially been tied from the outset and its importance in determining which party will control the chamber come January.
With less than two weeks until Election Day, outside spending in the race — excluding party committee money — now stands at more than $28 million, with the U.S. Senate contest in Wisconsin between Republican Tommy G. Thompson and Democrat Tammy Baldwin coming in second at just over $23 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Those races, along with the Ohio matchup between Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown and Republican challenger Josh Mandel, are the only Senate campaigns in the country to crack the $20 million mark when money spent by party committees is excluded.
The $28 million Virginia figure is more than the campaigns of Mr. Allen and Mr. Kaine have spent combined. Among the third-party cash, slightly more than $10 million has been spent either in support of Mr. Kaine or in opposition to Mr. Allen, while $16.5 million has been spent opposing Mr. Kaine and $1.5 million for Mr. Allen.
With such a closely watched race in a state President Obama and Mitt Romney are heavily courting, the level of outside spending is not surprising, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, which runs FactCheck.org.
"There's nothing special about Virginia," she said. "The interesting research question is, 'What kind of synergy do you get from the fact that there's a presidential race and Senate race that are both very consequential?' "[If] you get that, you essentially have every ad addressed against Kaine addressed against Obama."
Mr. Allen has attempted to capitalize on the connection between Mr. Obama and Mr. Kaine, leading off the third and final debate between the candidates last week by asserting that he would be "Virginia's senator," as opposed to Mr. Kaine, who he said would merely be a rubber stamp.
"Tim wants to be President Obama's senator," Mr. Allen said. "In Washington, you deserve a strong, independent voice -- not an echo."
The candidates are also tangling over who is more likely to help break the partisan divide in Washington. Mr. Allen, for example, paints Mr. Kaine's decision to serve as chairman of the Democratic National Committee in his final year as governor as an unforgivable abdication of his duties to serve in an overtly partisan role.
Mr. Kaine, meanwhile, has consistently pointed to derogatory remarks Mr. Allen has made about Democrats in the past, such as encouraging Republicans in 1994 to knock Democrats' "soft teeth down their whiny throats," as emblematic of the current bickering and gridlock on Capitol Hill.
The two have frenetically barnstormed the state, speaking to senior citizens about their views on Social Security and Medicare and to small businesses and defense contractors about looming defense cuts that could devastate Virginia's military-rich economy. Mr. Kaine has a 1-point lead in the latest Real Clear Politics average of polls, and both campaigns insist that the race will stay neck and neck through to Election Day.
As Ms. Jamieson indicated, ads from Crossroads GPS, the sister group of the Karl Rove-founded super PAC, American Crossroads, link Mr. Kaine to Mr. Obama, who is fighting desperately to keep the state's 13 electoral votes in his column this year.
Wisconsin and Ohio are clearly battleground states as well, but don't have a media market as expensive as Northern Virginia -- which also reaches viewers in the District and Maryland, where voters aren't likely to provide Mr. Kaine or Mr. Obama much help in the Old Dominion.
"A lot of outside organizations are headquartered in Washington or Northern Virginia," said Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. "They know what's going on in this race, and they want to play and they want to be a part of it."
Billionaire Republican benefactor Sheldon Adelson made a splash recently by dumping $1.5 million of his vast fortune into Independence Virginia, a pro-Allen super PAC, prompting Mr. Kaine to send out a fundraising missive Thursday declaring it the "largest out-of-state contribution ever in Virginia."
The only larger contribution in state history was from Sen. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat, who wrote a $2 million check for his gubernatorial campaign in 2001, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan tracker of political money in the state.
Independence Virginia wasted little time in spending the money, reporting expenditures on Oct. 23 of $1.5 million for broadcast and cable advertising from Oct. 24-30 and $134,322 for direct-mail advertising.
Meanwhile, Majority PAC, a pro-Kaine group, made its own $337,625 media buy on Oct. 23 opposing Mr. Allen.
Democrats currently control the Senate 53-47, a figure that includes two independent senators who caucus with the Democrats. Republicans need to gain a net of four seats to ensure outright control of the chamber.
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