When Timothy M. Kaine takes the stage Tuesday in Charlotte, he’ll be one of a handful of candidates in high-profile races slated to address the Democratic National Convention.
But for Kaine, who is battling fellow former Virginia governor George Allen (R) for a U.S. Senate seat, his 27-month tenure as national party chairman has proved to be a double-edged sword. Kaine’s convention appearance is a reminder that his DNC partisan post cemented his ties to the White House and President Obama’s most controversial initiatives — particularly the economic stimulus and the health-care law — after years of building a reputation as a moderate consensus-builder.
Yet the post also sharpened Kaine’s political skills and helped develop a national profile after he left the governor’s mansion in Richmond. And it has boosted his campaign coffers, as the contacts he developed at the DNC have led him to outraise Allen.
Democrats disagree that Kaine’s DNC service could hurt his Senate prospects in Virginia this year. “I think the way he conducted himself is a strength, because what he did was make the Democratic case, but did it in a way that didn’t involve name-
calling,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.).
But Republicans have deliberately referred to Kaine with the honorific “Chairman” rather than “Governor,” and they have branded him Obama’s “cheerleader in chief.”
“Virginians know Tim Kaine chose to be a part-time governor to jet-set as Democrats’ national party chairman while families and businesses faced a struggling economy,” Allen spokeswoman Emily Davis said.
Kaine’s primary responsibility as party chairman was simply to deliver on whatever the president asked. Kaine was an ubiquitous media presence, helping to marshal political muscle behind Obama’s top policy priorities. The jury is still out on whether the health-care law will help or hurt both men in November.
By contrast, Kaine’s predecessor, Howard Dean, had no president and largely set his own course. “He was definitely the right guy for the job, as the job description changed quite remarkably from when I had it,” said Dean, who ran the party when George W. Bush was in office.
Kaine’s biggest challenge as chairman was merging the existing DNC structure with the remnants of Obama’s massive 2008 campaign operation.
“That was not a done deal when he became chairman,” said David Mills, executive director of the Virginia Democratic Party.
Dean praised Kaine for working to “defuse some of the dissatisfaction” within the party as the new bosses moved in after the election. When DNC members grumbled over heavy-handed White House tactics, Democrats say privately, they were more likely to direct their ire at Obama’s top political aides than at Kaine.
“That was a very, very tricky dance, but I think at the end of the day when he left the state, parties were comfortable,” said Jane Stetson, the DNC’s national finance chairman. “He also increased funding for the state parties, so that’s helpful.”
Democrats outraised Republicans during the 2010 cycle — $230 million to $199 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Kaine raised the money without taking contributions from political action committees or lobbyists, a change mandated by Obama.
During Kaine’s tenure, however, Democrats suffered embarrassing defeats, including gubernatorial losses in Virginia and New Jersey in 2009, and they lost control of the House in a historic drubbing in 2010. But with the arguable exception of the Virginia race, few observers blame Kaine for that record.
“I think he did the very best job he could under difficult circumstances,” said Van Hollen, who chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for the 2008 and 2010 elections.
Kaine and Obama sought to use the massive e-mail list and grass-roots movement assembled during the presidential campaign to pressure Congress to act on the president’s signature legislative initiatives, with debatable success. Obama’s first budget and his health-care law passed only by the barest of margins along strict partisan lines.
“For all the talk that Obama was changing the map with the grass-roots organization, that didn’t happen,” said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.
After state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds failed to keep Virginia’s governorship in Democratic hands in 2009, Kaine criticized Deeds’s strategy, arguing that he should have worked to energize Democrats rather than distance himself from the president in pursuit of independent voters.
By sticking close to Obama now, Kaine is following his own advice to other Democrats. He could have turned down the chance to speak in Charlotte, and he could avoid appearing with Obama when the president visits Virginia, but he has not done so.
Kaine was originally dismissive of the idea that he might run the DNC, and he was widely believed to covet a Cabinet post, but changed his mind after entreaties from Obama. (Kaine appeared similarly hesitant to jump into the Senate contest last year but was again successfully lobbied by Obama.)
From the moment he became party chairman, Republicans suggested the position would divert Kaine’s attention from the more important job of governor. They also criticized Kaine for not releasing his full calendar, expecting it would show how much time he was traveling on DNC business. Kaine’s defenders noted that former Virginia governor James S. Gilmore III pulled the same duty, serving as Republican National Committee chairman while in the statehouse (and Democrats criticized him for it at the time).
And Allen spent two years running the National Republican Senatorial Committee when he was in Congress.
For a year, Republicans have been hitting Kaine for his DNC service and his ties to Obama, saying those factors would make it difficult for him to pivot back to his moderate leanings. But there has been little sign in the polls that the criticism has eroded Kaine’s support.
Still, Rothenberg cautioned that Kaine has to contend with the fact that “part of his career has been as a party spokesman at a time when people don’t like professional politicians.”