By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 23, 2009
RICHMOND -- Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine calls state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, the Democratic nominee for governor, as often as every other day some weeks to plot strategy and commiserate about the unrelenting, road-tripping life of a candidate.
Kaine has hosted several events for his good friend, including fundraisers and private luncheons, directed $550,000 to his campaign and recorded a radio ad for him. Their staffs consult daily, and Kaine's wife has even called Deeds's wife to help her navigate the role of being a candidate's spouse.
"He's been through two statewide campaigns," Deeds said. "He's walked the same path I'm walking. I look to him for advice and friendship."
Aside from Deeds and his Republican opponent, Robert F. McDonnell, no one has as much riding on this year's gubernatorial election as Kaine. In Virginia, Kaine is under pressure to help elect Deeds to cement his legacy as a popular governor and to extend his party's recent electoral successes. Nationally, Democrats will be counting on Kaine, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, to deliver his own state and provide a political boost to President Obama. If he can't manage that, many will wonder how effective a chairman he can be.
Craig Bieber, a longtime Democratic political consultant not affiliated with the Deeds campaign, said Kaine can help Deeds win over the unenthusiastic Democratic base and suburban voters who might be skeptical of a senator from one of the most rural parts of the state. But, he said, Kaine must be careful to help Deeds without tying him to his own sagging approval rating and national politics.
"The pressure is on Kaine. The pressure is on Obama. They certainly want to do everything they can to help Deeds," Bieber said. "But [Deeds] can't get lumped into being a national Democrat. He has to convince voters that he is different from national Democrats."
Kaine has appeared publicly with Deeds at three rallies and a pair of Northern Virginia fundraisers -- one with Obama and one at the McLean home of developer Mark Lowham -- and hosted a luncheon with 60 business leaders in Richmond. He will hold another fundraiser for Deeds in early September and plans to join him on the campaign trail Labor Day weekend, the unofficial kickoff of the race.
Publicly, Deeds campaign officials insist that Kaine is an asset and that they are proud to have his support. But privately, some say they realize it's not always politically beneficial for Deeds to be associated with him. Kaine's popularity rating remains above 50 percent but is waning, and his position as party chairman brings with it the burdens of a national party that voters are viewing with increasing skepticism. Some Democrats have also privately criticized the governor for oddly timed announcements that had the effect of overshadowing Deeds campaign events.
As a result, Deeds has subtly sought to limit his public connections to Kaine, a strategy the politically savvy governor has blessed. On Friday, for instance, Deeds aired his first television ad of the general election campaign. It includes a clip of Deeds walking with Sen. Mark Warner (D) but makes no mention of Kaine.
"He knows his own mind. He knows what he wants to do," Kaine said. "I want to be helpful. . . . When he asks me for help, I want to provide it. He'll decide how much he wants me to do."
Kaine has been stymied on many of his most ambitious policy goals by a multibillion-dollar budget shortfall and an uncooperative House of Delegates, which is controlled by the GOP. His legacy remains largely political, helping to usher in Democratic gains in what had long been a conservative Southern state. He helped Democrats win two U.S. Senate seats, regain control of the state Senate and carry the state in a presidential election for the first time in more than four decades.
This year's elections in Virginia and New Jersey -- the only two states with governor's races -- are considered the first electoral tests for Obama and Kaine's young tenure as DNC chairman.
"These are both must-win seats for the Democrats," said Phil Musser, a political consultant who works to elect Republican governors nationwide. "Whether they like it or not," he added, Obama and Kaine will be judged on the outcomes.
Kaine's involvement in New Jersey pales in comparison to his involvement in his home state. He flew to New Jersey for the first time last week to help Gov. Jon S. Corzine raise money in his tough bid for reelection.
In Virginia, McDonnell has an early lead over Deeds, according to a Washington Post poll released last week. The Republican is favored over the Democrat among all registered voters, 47 to 40 percent, and is up by an even steeper margin, 54 to 39 percent, among those who say they are certain to vote in November.
McDonnell has spent much of the campaign trying to force Deeds to talk about controversial federal issues, including legislation on unions, climate change and health care, as he works to tie him to Obama and the Democratic Congress.
But Deeds has distanced himself from issues in Washington while campaigning on following in the footsteps of the past two Democratic governors. "I think Mark Warner set the tone,'' Deeds said. "Tim Kaine followed that tone, and they've taken a pragmatic reach across the aisle to govern in a way that works in Virginia."
McDonnell accuses Deeds of refusing to take a stand because he can't cross Kaine. "He had no ability politically to oppose him," McDonnell said.
Deeds and Kaine met a decade ago when Deeds introduced the then-Richmond mayor at a holiday party in Rockingham County when he was running for lieutenant governor. They got to know each other better after Deeds won a seat in the state Senate, where Kaine served as the presiding officer after winning his race for lieutenant governor.
"When I talk to Tim Kaine, I talk to a guy that's my friend -- my friend who happens to be governor and happens to be chairman of the DNC," Deeds said.
Kaine has sent out e-mails on Deeds's behalf to supporters and recorded radio ads for him in Spanish. The campaign has received $500,000 from the DNC and $50,000 from Kaine's in-state political action committee, Moving Virginia Forward.
Several of Kaine's staffers are working for Deeds, including finance director Matt Felan, senior strategist Mo Elleithee, press aide Jeff Tiller and Kevin Hall, who is working on and off in the press shop.
But in recent weeks, some of Kaine's actions -- and inactions -- have puzzled Deeds supporters.
Kaine's gubernatorial office scheduled major news conferences on the same days as Obama's visit and Deeds's announcement that a slew of Republican legislators were supporting him. Kaine's second-largest individual donor, close friend Sheila Johnson, endorsed McDonnell without Deeds being notified ahead of time. And Kaine apparently did not intervene when the White House asked former governor L. Douglas Wilder to support Deeds, a move that became public and drew attention to Wilder's uncertainty.
Deeds downplayed any conflicts with Kaine, but the campaign did confront the governor about the timing of at least one of the news conferences, according to senior staffers.
Kaine acknowledges the enormous pressure on him to win the governor's race for the Democrats this year. But, he said, most of the pressure is about good governance, not politics.
"I feel a lot of pressure . . . and it's all pressure about how I want Virginia to be run well," Kaine said. "Are there other pressures in my role as governor, in my role as DNC chair? Sure, but they are so small compared to the major one. . . . I do feel very, very strongly about the way the state should be run."