RICHMOND —Timothy M. Kaine , chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said Monday that he is “increasingly likely” to run for U.S. Senate, his strongest indication yet that he will enter the marquee race that could pit him against former Republican governor George Allen in 2012.
Kaine made the comments to students at a class he teaches once a week at the University of Richmond, which were confirmed by the DNC, while rumors about the remarks swept Twitter on Monday.
“No final decision will be made or announced until the governor has had a final round of consultations with folks about how he can best serve the president, the people and the causes he cares about,’’ DNC spokesman Brad Woodhouse said.
At a major Democratic fundraising dinner in Richmond last month, state leaders paraded to the stage in front of more than 1,000 activists, each successively encouraging Kaine to run. He has consulted with President Obama and been encouraged to run by U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid, both of Virginia’s senators and countless state officials.
“This is very reassuring,” said state Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), who recently told a Washington area radio station that he believed that there was an obvious “drop-off” in viable candidates after Kaine. “It’s not as reassuring as saying, ‘I’m definitely running.’ But it’s very reassuring.”
Kaine, who served as Richmond mayor and lieutenant governor, would start the race with strong name recognition — he was the only potential candidate with statewide wins under his belt. Polls have shown that he remains fairly popular in the state. Democrats believe he would make a good partner to Obama, with whom he is close, in a year when the president will make a major push for reelection in Virginia. And they think his contact with national Democrats would bring more resources to bear on the campaign.
Kaine has delayed his decision until next month because he is trying to finish up work at the DNC, and an official campaign announcement would trigger certain federal campaign laws, sources close to the chairman say.
“The truth is there is plenty of time for him to announce,’’ said Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political analyst at George Mason University. “Delaying doesn’t really hurt him all that much because he’s getting plenty of media attention.”
Woodhouse said Kaine has DNC commitments through the end of March.
But already, several names have been mentioned to replace him at the national party, including Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, former Texas congressman Martin Frost, former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, former Ohio governor Ted Strickland and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida.
Many Republicans think that Kaine’s close association with Obama would prove a significant liability with independent voters, whom they believe have soured on the president, since he was the first Democrat to carry Virginia in 40 years.
“Tim Kaine has been the most vocal cheerleader in Washington for the Democrats’ reckless economic policies that have failed to create new jobs while driving our national debt past $14 trillion,’’ said Chris Bond, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Allen, who lost the Senate seat to Webb in 2006, began campaigning in January for his old job. He faces Jamie Radtke, former chairwoman of the Virginia Tea Party Patriots Federation, for the GOP nomination.
Several other Republicans are considering a run: Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William); Corey A. Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County board of supervisors; Bert Mizusawa, a businessman and lawyer who ran against U.S. Rep. Scott Rigell; and Bishop Earl Jackson, chaplain for the conservative Family Foundation and pastor at Exodus Faith Ministries in Chesapeake.
In a classic tale of modern media, Kaine’s off-hand comments to a group of students in Richmond became national news in a matter of hours. A man who identified himself only as a student at the University of Richmond named Greg called in to a Charlottesville-area radio program Monday morning to report that two friends told him about Kaine’s comments in class.
“Greg’s” on-air report was then picked up on Twitter, including on the popular feed of University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato, and a media frenzy ensued.
“In the old days this never would have happened,’’ said Chris Callahan, who has worked at the radio station, WINA, for 37 years. “He would have said it and it would have been the buzz in Richmond and maybe a week later we would have heard about it.”
It seems unlikely that Kaine intended to tip his hand with the casual comments. Several political operatives who are close to him appeared initially flummoxed by the Twitter accounts of the classroom exchange, indicating that they too were uncertain exactly what the DNC chairman had told students. An online syllabus for the course, titled “Leadership Breakthroughs,” indicates that the day’s lesson plan was to involve discussion of a book about the making of the atomic bomb.
Staff writer Ben Pershing contributed to this report.