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Carney: In government-dependent Va., Allen walks a fine line

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Photo - U.S. Senate candidate George Allen casts his vote on the day of Republican Virginia State Primary on June 12, 2012, at Washington Mill Elementary School in Alexandria. (Getty Images)
U.S. Senate candidate George Allen casts his vote on the day of Republican Virginia State Primary on June 12, 2012, at Washington Mill Elementary School in Alexandria. (Getty Images)
Politics,Timothy P. Carney,Campaign 2012,Politics Digest

It's tough to run against big government in a state made rich by big government. Virginia Republican George Allen is trying to walk that fine line in his open-seat U.S. Senate race.

Only three counties in America have a median household income higher than $100,000, and they are all in Northern Virginia: Loudoun, Fairfax and Arlington. Look a bit further down the Census Bureau's list published last week and notice that seven of the country's 10 richest counties are within commuting distance of D.C. You can surmise where that wealth is coming from: the expanding federal government.

The federal workforce is huge here. Fairfax, Loudoun and Arlington have 200,000 government workers among them. In the two counties on the Metro, Arlington and Fairfax, government employs 25 percent of all workers -- compared with less than 15 percent nationwide.

Then add in federal contractors who work here in order to be close to the center of power -- between "500,000 and 600,000 federal contract workers supported by $82 billion in federal procurement awards in the region," according to Stephen Fuller, director of George Mason University's Center for Regional Analysis.

Fuller adds: "Federal spending constitutes 40 percent of the Washington-area gross regional product, without counting the lobbyists and associations or tourists. This does not count the ripple effects either."

Hence Northern Virginia's wealth. A family headed by two GS-10s (federal employees with moderate experience) at the Department of Energy could easily pull in $128,000 between them. If one of them cashes out, for instance going to a downtown nuclear-industry trade association or a green-energy lobbying firm, she could command $200,000, easy.

The workers in the military-industrial complex haul in even more, especially if they came to Lockheed Martin or Northrop Grumman through the revolving door from the Pentagon or Capitol Hill.

As a result, government overspending and federal expansion -- good whipping boys around the country -- are the cash cows of Northern Virginia. This makes things tough for any politician running as a conservative in the Old Dominion.

The 2008 election bore this out. Obama won 60 percent of the vote in Loudoun, Fairfax and Arlington (and even more in the cities of Falls Church and Alexandria) -- compared with 53 percent statewide. Close-in Fauquier and Prince William counties also made the Census Bureau's list of the 10 wealthiest counties, and Obama did better in both of them than he did statewide.

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli is from Northern Virginia, and he attributes the region's recent leftward progression to transplants flocking to Washington's growth. "We're importing all these people that work in the federal government and businesses associated with the federal government," Cuccinelli told me at the Republican convention in Tampa, Fla. "They are obviously, generally, pro-federal government. And that tends to be pro-Democrat instead of Republican."

So how does George Allen handle this dynamic? Awkwardly.

I ran into Allen in Richmond this month, and I asked him about the looming automatic budget cuts resulting from last year's debt deal -- the "sequester" triggered by the failure of the congressional supercommittee earlier this year to come up with enough spending cuts or revenue raisers.

Allen said the sequester had to be blocked because the huge defense cuts included would cost "200,000 good-paying jobs in defense and technology." This is an odd argument for military spending: We can't put Lockheed procurement specialists out of a job!

When I pressed Allen on defense spending as a jobs program, he granted that "the role of government is not to be the employer of last resort," and he added that he thought huge defense cuts would hurt our national security.

But of course, it's not only defense spending that keeps Northern Virginia afloat. It's Health and Human Services spending, Energy spending, Housing and Urban Development spending, and all other federal largess that spawns Beltway Bandits in Crystal City and the Dulles Corridor.

If Allen wants to cut federal spending -- even domestic, social spending -- he needs to dry up some of his state's money pot. Allen says, correctly, that if unnecessary federal jobs are trimmed as government is shrunk, private-sector jobs will replace them. But those private-sector jobs won't necessarily be in Virginia.

Allen's Democratic opponent, former Gov. Tim Kaine, sees this tension and tries to exploit it. Kaine, as a Democrat, is at home with the argument that government spending creates jobs. He has a plan to avert the sequester -- a plan that involves tax hikes, which Allen could never advocate.

It's another bitter fruit of government's growth -- a class of wealthy government dependents who vote.

Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.

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