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Voters stand in line to cast their ballots for the U.S. presidential election in Richmond Public Library in Richmond, Va., on Tuesday. (JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS)
Voters stand in line to cast their ballots for the U.S. presidential election in Richmond Public Library in Richmond, Va., on Tuesday. (JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS)

Battleground

Swing state Virginia endures election’s opulence, vitriol Add to ...

Nothing about Tim Kaine’s campaign headquarters in Richmond gives away the fact that he just has participated in what probably was the most expensive Senate race in the country.

Mr. Kaine, a Democrat, based his operations in a nondescript industrial park in a northern corner of this city of about 206,000 people, which he used to govern as mayor.

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One of those big, whoever-for-whatever-office signs pulls you off a quiet street and into a lot that contains two aging and bland low-rise office buildings. But that is as close as this place gets to outward fanfare. The buildings lack windows, awnings and signage. A battered mini-van decorated with 20 bumper stickers – “TKforVA,” “EARTH,” “Knitters for Obama 08,” etc. – and a “Mr. Doggy” vanity plate offers visitors a clue that the Kaine headquarters must be close. A handmade sign on which someone has scrawled “Kaine for VA is in Suite C” is taped to one of the buildings, suggesting that someone got tired of being told the offices were too hard to find.

The Spartan setting belies a campaign that will be remembered for its opulence. Late-stage estimates suggest that Mr. Kaine, his Republican opponent George Allen, and their supporters will have spent some $80-million (U.S.) by the time their accounts are settled. Most of the money was used to inundate Virginians with pamphlets, radio spots and television advertisements to sway one of the tightest races in the country. With 90 per cent of precincts reporting, Mr. Kaine was declared the winner with 51 per cent of the vote.

It seems unnecessary to add, but just in case: the tone of that publicity was almost entirely negative.

As a Canadian, it’s tempting to conclude that all the money, and all the vitriol, must be poisoning the polity – especially here in Virginia, where tribute is paid to Thomas Jefferson and George Washington everywhere you go.

The final tally on voter turnout will help determine if all the negativity is having a corrosive effect on American democracy. But on this chilly, but bright, day in the former capital of the Confederacy, there were few signs that voters were turned off by the tone of the ad war.

Edith Bassett, a voter at Precinct 203, said she had grown numb to negative advertising, in part because her husband had spent much of the year in front of MSNBC, the political left’s answer to Fox News. Thirty-two-year-old Justin Spears shrugged. “It’s where the bar will be set from here on out,” he said. “I think it could actually motivate people.”

John Jurgens, a Democratic voter in the Richmond suburb of Chesterfield County, said he was “thankful” that his side managed to raise as much money as the other guys.

Richmond is a blue (Democratic) redoubt in what is otherwise a red (Republican) state. The city council is majority Democratic, yet Eric Cantor, a Republican leader in the House of Representatives and a favourite of the Tea Party, represents the city’s suburban fringe. At various visitors’ centres, brochures for the Richmond International Speedway and the Museum of the Confederacy compete for attention with publicity for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Democrats are working very hard to make Virginia a “purple” state. Mr. Obama’s win here four years ago was the first by a Democratic presidential candidate in four decades. The Democratic Party and sympathetic non-profits were aggressively registering voters who were previously disenfranchised, especially blacks. Angela Kepus helped sign up almost 6,000 first-time voters in the Richmond area through a non-profit called Virginia New Majority, exceeding targets. The group registered more than 15,000 new voters in the entire state, which also was better than expected. “A lot of people were happy, motivated to get out,” said Ms. Kepus, who said she never was involved in politics until Mr. Obama came along in 2008.

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