By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 6, 2008
Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) sat down with his political staff shortly after his election in 2005 and spelled out their next mission: build the state Democratic Party for a generation of victories. With Tuesday's election, Virginia Democrats have completed a major takeover of politics.
"It is still sinking in," Kaine said in an interview yesterday. "There were doubters who said it wouldn't happen in Virginia, and Virginia wouldn't elect a man named Barack Obama. There were people who think of Virginia, and they think of Old Virginny. But Old Virginny is dead."
Virginia hasn't been this blue in more than four decades after Democratic wins Tuesday in the presidential, U.S. Senate and several U.S. House races.
Part of the Democratic success in the state can be attributed to President Bush's low approval ratings and the turmoil on Wall Street. But Kaine has also seized on a demographic shift that has allowed Democrats to compete in suburbs outside Washington, Richmond and Norfolk where they had been losing badly. He also focused resources and time in vote-rich Fairfax County and the rest of close-in Northern Virginia, where residents are less concerned with conservative social issues than are residents of other parts of the state.
"Kaine at least had the vision to see what was there," said Rep. Tom Davis (R), who is retiring and will be replaced by Democrat Gerald E. Connolly. "Democrats now have a coalition of suburbanites and inner-city minorities. The question becomes, can they hold that together?"
So far, Kaine has. With Virginia holding statewide or legislative elections just about every year, Kaine kept his political operation intact helping other Democratic candidates even though he cannot run for reelection. In addition, he kept experienced political staffers in Virginia, although many had job offers elsewhere. And finally, Kaine's grass-roots operation melded perfectly with the philosophy of the Obama campaign, creating a political force this year.
When Kaine took office, both houses of the legislature were dominated by the GOP. Virginia's two U.S. senators were Republican, as were eight of its 11 members of Congress. And most disillusioning to Kaine was the fact that the state reliably voted GOP in presidential elections.
Tuesday's election marked almost a complete reversal. Obama, a friend of Kaine's, became the first Democrat since 1964 to win Virginia in the presidential race. Kaine's predecessor as governor, Mark R. Warner, will become the state's second Democratic senator. Depending on the final outcome of a race in central Virginia that is separated by 31 votes, the commonwealth's congressional delegation could be dominated by six Democrats in districts that were drawn by Republicans. And the state Senate is now controlled by the governor's party.
Republicans point out that the GOP has strong candidates in statewide offices, including Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell, the likely gubernatorial nominee next year. He and Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who is likely to seek reelection, are better known statewide than anyone in the crowded field of Democrats seeking the two seats. But in a Washington Post poll last month, voters preferred, by 17 percentage points, a Democrat to win the governor's race next year.
Obama won the state with 52 percent of the vote, and his showing highlights the rapid political transformation of Virginia's suburbs, causing some Republicans to fear that Democrats will become the majority party in Virginia unless there are major changes in the GOP.
Before Kaine took office, the state Democratic Party had little money, no permanent headquarters and an outdated file of sympathetic voters.
In his 2005 race, Kaine set a new standard for a statewide Democratic campaign in Virginia, dispatching more than 100 staffers. He invested heavily in technology to identify potential unregistered, Democratic-leaning voters in the fast-growing suburbs. On Election Day, Kaine became the first Democratic gubernatorial candidate in more than two decades to win Loudoun and Prince William counties.
After he took office, Kaine vowed he would restructure the party as if preparing to run for reelection in four years, which is not allowed under Virginia's constitution.
"I wanted to run a year-round campaign," Kaine said in an interview between campaign events for Obama last week. "My thought was, let's take advantage of the fact we have a race every year. So let's run a perennial operation."
Kaine persuaded veterans of his campaign to remain in Virginia instead of accepting new jobs. His efforts produced a pool of Democratic staffers experienced in finding Democratic voters in the traditionally conservative state.
"Governor Kaine made personal appeals to people to stay in Virginia and work toward victories in '06 and '07," said Levar Stoney, who was a Democratic field organizer and now is executive director of the Virginia Democratic Party.
In 2006, that talent pool helped. James Webb, who struggled to raise money until late in the U.S. Senate campaign, establish a get-out-the vote effort that vaulted him to victory. In 2007, Kaine redefined the standard for state legislative races. He raised more than $4 million, and his political staff oversaw the campaigns of several candidates, helping Democrats pick up four seats in the House of Delegates and four in the state Senate. All of them were in the same suburban communities that Kaine carried in his race.
"You plant a flag in some of these more challenging areas, and you build on that year after year," said Charlie Kelly, who was a field organizer for Kaine in 2005 and now heads up his political action committee. "We keep good people on the ground, and we trust them to hire others."
Kaine and Virginia Democratic leaders then set out to help Obama, Warner and congressional candidates. Led by Mike Henry, campaign manager for Kaine in 2005 and Warner this year, Democrats set a goal to expand their reach even deeper into the fast-growing parts of the state.
In his drive to turn Virginia blue in the presidential race, Kaine found a natural ally in the Obama campaign. Democratic volunteers knocked on thousands of doors in historically Republican areas: Stafford and Spotsylvania counties in Northern Virginia's outer suburbs as well as Chesterfield and Henrico counties outside Richmond. The coordinated effort raised more than $15 million.
Obama surpassed Kaine's winning margin in Loudoun and Prince William. Obama also outperformed Kaine in Chesterfield, which Sen. John McCain (R) narrowly won, and Henrico, which Obama carried with 55 percent of the vote. Obama also made gains in Hampton Roads, where Democrat Glenn C. Nye III unseated Rep. Thelma Drake.
Nye said, "They have been working very hard to build that infrastructure, and having a Democratic-coordinated campaign working with the Obama and Warner campaigns was very useful in getting out our message."
Democrats are now gearing up for 2009, when they hope to keep the governor's mansion and take control of the House of Delegates.
"The gains this year were not a fluke," Kaine said. "Everything we did this year prepares for next year."