Former governor Tim Kaine doesn’t have to travel far from his perch as Democratic National Committee chairman to run for Senate in neighboring Virginia.
But politically, he may have to cover some real ground over the next 19 months.
There’s little debate that Kaine is the strongest potential candidate for Democrats, given his history of victory in the Commonwealth and his fundraising connections built during his time at the DNC. As far as recruiting coups go, this is the biggest one yet for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and that should not be forgotten.
But Kaine’s time at the DNC also made him, by necessity, an advocate for national Democratic priorities that he may have to explain to Virginia voters in 2012.
While individual senators and congressmen have some discretion about how full-throated they are about supporting the party’s and President Obama’s agenda, Kaine’s job for the last two years has been to be the party’s and the president’s top advocate, and that means there’s plenty of opposition research to mine.
The GOP strategy to do just that is no secret. Already, national Republicans have released a video labeling Kaine as Obama’s “cheerleader-in-chief,” and in a statement after Kaine’s announcement today, his likely opponent, former Sen. George Allen (R), calls him “Chairman Kaine” rather than the honorific that Kaine would probably prefer – “governor.”
Kaine, for his part, isn’t jumping into the race as Obama’s candidate; in the two-minute video announcing his candidacy, he focuses exclusively on his accomplishments in the state with nary a mention of Obama or the DNC.
Democrats say that Kaine will be able to keep the race focused on his vision for the state and continue to trumpet the good parts of the health care bill. They also say Obama is more popular in the state than the most recent public polling suggests and that he will have a strong organization in the state in 2012.
They may be right, but we won’t know for sure for a while yet.
In the meantime, here’s a preview of what you can expect to see from Republicans:
* Kaine, as Obama’s de facto top political hand, is on record all over the place praising the president. During the 2010 election, he even suggested Democrats would be “crazy” to distance themselves from the president.
And it’s not just that. The two men are also very close. There’s video out there both of Obama calling into a local radio station to praise Kaine during a guest appearance and of Kaine proudly noting that he “was the first official outside the state of Illinois to endorse U.S. Sen. Barack Obama for the presidency of the United States.”
Polling in recent months is scattershot. A Roanoke College poll in December shows the president’s approval rating at just 36 percent in the state, with 52 percent disapproving, while a Clarus poll from around the same time showed those numbers at 44 percent and 48 percent, respectively. Democrats say they are even better.
Obama won Virginia in 2008, but it has swung strongly towards Republicans since then, with the GOP taking three congressional seats in 2010. It’s going to be very hard for Kaine to run from Obama; he better hope he doesn’t have to.
* Kaine was among the most vociferous advocates for Obama’s health care bill – a bill most agree cost Democrats seats in 2010. Kaine called the bill a “monumental accomplishment. This historic legislation is further evidence of the change President Obama has been able to bring about,” he said.
That’s pretty strong language and a pretty easy campaign ad for Republicans. If this vote continues to be a liability going forward, there is plenty of video evidence of Kaine’s support.
Democrats continue to stress that the health care bill doesn’t have to be a big liability and that they can point out the popular parts of the bill, though that strategy had limited success in 2010.
* Kaine has spoken out against well-heeled conservative super PACs. As Obama has taken up the mantle against super PACs that don’t have to disclose their donors, Kaine has been on-board the whole way.
So if Kaine is running for Senate, it’s logical to assume those very same super PACs may have a little extra incentive to target him. And that could mean big money in an expenseive state.
It’s become pretty clear in recent months that running for Senate isn’t something that Kaine had planned on doing, and his decision to accept the chairmanship of the DNC is pretty strong evidence to that effect.
Almost everyone agrees that Kaine is Democrats’ top recruit in Virginia, and in a tough state, he gives the party the kind of hope it wouldn’t otherwise have had. But the centrist reputation that made him a popular governor has been compromised over the last two years, and he’ll have to deal with that going forward.
None of this is to say that these things can’t be overcome — and for all we know, Obama might enter the 2012 election as a big asset to Kaine in Virginia — but the early strategic moves from Kaine and Republicans suggest this is the early issue in the race.
Watching Kaine navigate those waters will determine whether this recruiting coup can save a Senate seat.