RICHMOND — Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) is running for reelection with something he says was missing from the national ticket when he ran for vice president: a crisp economic message.
Flying around the country in 2016, he could see how then-candidate Donald Trump’s simple message — “I’m a builder” — resonated with voters, Kaine said as he pounded his fist on the arm of his chair Monday at Virginia Democratic Party headquarters.
The Clinton campaign “had really good plans, but they don’t communicate as immediately,” he said, snapping his fingers. “You’ve got to communicate immediately.”
Kaine formally launched his bid for a second term Monday with plans for 22 stops around the state over the next six days, during which he’ll challenge Trump’s vision for the country with the theme “A Virginia that works for all.”
“It’s a statement of value that we teach our kids to say every day but that I don’t necessarily think we live,” he said, referring to the Pledge of Allegiance. “I am worried about that tendency of the president. I think he’s more a ‘me first’ than a ‘for all.’ ”
Kaine sat in a room with a view of the state Capitol, where he served as governor and lieutenant governor, in a city where he served as a councilman and mayor. But at the starting line of his latest political campaign, Kaine said he still gets the jitters.
The senator, who was gently mocked during the 2016 presidential race as “America’s Dad,” will face one of three Republicans vying for their party’s nomination: Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors; Nicholas J. Freitas, a two-term state lawmaker and former Green Beret; and evangelical pastor E.W. Jackson, who ran a losing campaign for lieutenant governor in 2013. The primary is June 12.
Kaine, who is popular in Virginia, is favored to win. Each of his would-be Republican challengers supports Trump, who polls show is generally unpopular in Virginia — the only Southern state to vote for Hillary Clinton. No Republican has won statewide since 2009, and the party has struggled to field a formidable challenger to Kaine.
But Kaine, who expects to raise $25 million, says that it’s not enough for Democrats to run as anti-Trump.
If the Republicans are associated with lower taxes and fewer regulations, Democrats need to underline their support of investment in “people, education, immigration, workforce training,” Kaine said. “More investments in public infrastructure, road, rail, broadband, sewage treatment, school renovation. And wage policy.”
When it comes to gun control, Kaine can draw a stark distinction with any of the three potential Republican candidates.
Kaine was governor during the 2007 Virginia Tech mass shooting, a pivotal event that led him to push for tighter gun control and earn an F rating from the Virginia-based National Rifle Association. He is the co-sponsor of a Senate bill to ban the sale, transfer, manufacture and importation of military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
Stewart, who lost the GOP nomination for governor last year by one percentage point and models himself after Trump, has equated gun control with an assault on the Second Amendment and has been holding campaign events at shooting ranges around Virginia.
Last month, Freitas gave a fiery speech against gun control on the floor of the Virginia House of Delegates that spurred many Democrats, particularly African Americans, to walk out in protest.
And Jackson’s website says he will “oppose the Agenda of the Left that seeks to take away or tell us to put away our guns.”
The activism of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students after the Feb. 14 shooting at their school in Parkland, Fla., has changed the national conversation about gun violence, Kaine said. He credited the Parkland teens with language in the recent federal budget bill that eliminates a prohibition on funding gun violence research and partly strengthens background checks.
His Virginia colleague in the Senate, Mark R. Warner, recently decided to support the assault weapons ban.
“I just think it worked when we had it in place,” Kaine said, referring to the 10-year federal assault weapons ban that expired in 2004. “. . . Not worked perfectly, but it worked. When it expired, these mass shootings increased.”
Kaine wants Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to allow a week of debate about gun control. If Congress agrees to any limits, he said, universal background checks would be the mostly likely because the issue polls well.
“I feel like I have unfinished business on this issue because of Virginia Tech,” he said. “I don’t want to finish my time in public office without having done something more meaningful about gun violence.”
Limits on gun purchases are more likely if Democrats take control of the House or Senate, the odds of which Kaine puts at 50-50 for both chambers.
In Virginia, the proliferation of Indivisible and other left-leaning groups make him optimistic that in November, Democrats could have a repeat of 2017’s blue wave.
“If they stay active, I think we could have a good one,” he said, adding that Gov. Ralph Northam (D) benefited from down-ticket enthusiasm. “There’s an up-and-down synergy, and I think you’re going to see that in ’18 here and elsewhere.”
During his campaign kickoff swing, Kaine will travel to Loudoun and Prince William counties on Friday and hold a rally in Alexandria on Saturday.