RICHMOND — Tim Kaine is campaigning like a man who knows how it feels to lose an election.
Polls show the Democrat is as much as 20 points ahead of his challenger for a second term in the U.S. Senate, but Kaine has TV ads in every market in Virginia. No political event is too small: a business breakfast in Virginia Beach. A fish fry in Castlewood. Rallies in Williamsburg, Fairfax Station, Henrico County.
On a recent Saturday morning, Kaine stops for coffee and a muffin at Stir Crazy, a cafe near his home in Richmond’s Northside. Next he’ll hit a union shop in the Lakeside neighborhood, then three more events.
He wasn’t supposed to be here, of course. Exactly two years ago, Kaine was at the pinnacle — campaigning as Hillary Clinton’s running mate, playing his harmonica on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” preparing for the culmination of a charmed two decades in politics as the presumed vice president of the United States.
The shocking loss in 2016 was Kaine’s first, a record scratch after a steady rise from Richmond City Council to mayor to lieutenant governor to governor to U.S. senator. He delivered Virginia, the only Southern state to back Clinton. But Kaine’s next-door-neighbor style either didn’t suit the national mood or never got fully aired as he played the role of running-mate attack dog.
So he’s back on the stump, hoping to hang on to his Senate seat. Running against a Republican opponent — Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart — who casts himself as more Trump than Trump, Kaine has the odd opportunity of re-litigating the 2016 race on his own terms.
He won’t call it a do-over, but he does find inspiration in the idea of transcending disappointment and trying to defeat the nativist impulses that President Trump relied on to win and Stewart now promotes.
“The job of anybody who is disappointed is to immediately fight for those who are afraid. And I have just felt that as a powerful, powerful motivator,” he said. “In fact I probably had a set of motivations as a senator for my first [six] years, but it’s kind of just boiled down to that one now.”
Kaine likes to joke that the national loss made home look better than ever. Within days of the 2016 defeat, he had resolved to emulate former senator John Warner, a Republican who represented Virginia for 30 years and gained national stature as a centrist.
Warner exemplified the moderate “Virginia Way” of civility and bipartisanship. Today, those ideals seem quaint.
The Senate itself has a harsher complexion. The filibuster for judicial nominations is gone, undermining the old culture of compromise. It’s become acceptable for the majority party to crush the minority. It’s like climate change — more energy in the atmosphere creates bigger storms, such as the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Kaine sees himself fighting back by concentrating on the place that has still never rejected him. He’s using his high profile and enormous war chest to help Democrats try to pick up congressional seats across Virginia.
At the Stir Crazy cafe, as parents with strollers and elderly people in jogging gear bustle in and out, Kaine greets a stream of familiar faces. Michele Surat veers over.
“Nice to see you, lady.” They smooch on the cheek. She teaches high school, old friend of his wife’s, went to his wedding in 1984. She gives him a long look.
“Thank you,” she says. “For every, every, everything.”
“Well, it’s intense right now,” he says. “We live to fight another day.”
Kaine and his wife, Anne Holton, have lived in the same house for 26 years, a 1920s brick foursquare on a comfortably eclectic street. They raised three kids alongside a group of neighbors who all have children the same age.
Though Kaine grew up near Kansas City, Mo., he married into Virginia political royalty. Anne Holton is the daughter of former Republican governor Linwood Holton, who aggravated his own party in the early 1970s by integrating Richmond schools. Anne Holton has served as Virginia’s secretary of education and today sits on the Virginia Board of Education.
Kaine’s dad owned a welding shop, and though Kaine went to Harvard Law School (where he met Anne Holton), he took a year off for mission work in Honduras.
That experience pushed him into an early career as a civil rights lawyer, which his childhood friends say seemed like a more natural fit than politics. “He’s always had an eye for those who’ve gotten the short straws of life,” said Mark O’Connell, who grew up next door to Kaine.
In Saturday flag football games as kids, O’Connell said, Kaine was the guy who insisted on taking the players nobody else wanted. But then he still wanted to win. “Look, we may not have fielded the best team,” O’Connell said, “but once we said ‘1-2-3-hike’ [Kaine] was happy to go across the middle and put a forearm to your chest.”
Kaine’s early political career hinged on serendipity. His party’s first choice for lieutenant governor fell ill, and Kaine’s stand-in role put him on a path to the Executive Mansion. But like the idealistic flag football player, he developed killer political instincts.
He tagged current Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) as a future star when Northam first ran for the legislature in 2007. And Kaine was the first governor outside Illinois to endorse Barack Obama for president.
Kaine’s friendship with Obama — they discovered that their grandparents were from the same small town in Kansas — led to him being one of three finalists for Obama’s running mate in 2008. So when Hillary Clinton picked Kaine in 2016, his cheering section in Richmond felt things were on a natural track upward.
But there was a hiccup.
The vice-presidential debate against then-Gov. Mike Pence should have been a gimme for Kaine. It was on home turf at Longwood University in Farmville, an area with a long history in the civil rights movement — a perfect setting for Kaine to go full Mr. Rogers with virtue and empathy.
But Kaine clearly had other marching orders. Just nine minutes in, he began interrupting Pence and kept up the sometimes awkward attacks for the rest of the 90-minute debate.
In the audience and on televisions back in Richmond, Kaine’s friends looked on with dismay.
“I didn’t feel very good about it while I was sitting there,” said Mark Rubin, who lives across the street from Kaine and served as senior adviser when Kaine was governor. “He’s one of the best listeners you will ever see, so that notion of interrupting people — that’s just not who he is.”
Today, Kaine doesn’t spend much time publicly rehashing the election.
“Do I still have maybe some unresolved emotions about it? Yes,” he says. “But I’m old enough to know you don’t have to force yourself to resolve emotions. You know, they will resolve over time. I think for me the thing that has been very helpful is a continued and even renewed sense of mission.”
Kaine’s life in the Senate is far different from his comfortable routine in Richmond.
He dresses better in Washington — suit and tie, instead of the frumpy dad-wear he’s otherwise known for. People who’ve worked with Kaine often describe him as “comfortable in his own skin.” It’s an ease of bearing — absent from that Pence debate — that makes him seem as natural addressing large groups as he is in conversation.
As governor, in fact, Kaine’s staff had to reassign his speechwriter because Kaine hardly ever relied on written remarks, according to Rubin, his former senior adviser.
One recent Tuesday on Capitol Hill, Kaine ricocheted from committee hearing to policy meeting to floor vote to constituent visit. In between, he conducted hallway media interviews on North Korea and the Kavanaugh confirmation — that last one in Spanish.
It’s a schedule that doesn’t leave much room for reflection. Kaine says it reminds him of his earliest days in politics.
“The channel-changing between this, that and the other thing is very similar to being mayor,” he said. “This job and mayor are both ones where you might think you’re in control of it, but as soon as the day starts you find that your plans are going by the board.”
Some politicians who are used to running a city or state government struggle to transition to Congress, where they’re one of many. But Kaine said he’s adjusting.
“It’s not an executive job; it’s an expertise job,” he said. “So I have a few areas that I’ve really tried to make my own.”
Two areas Kaine touts: career and technical education and issues related to veterans and military families. A member of the Armed Services Committee, Kaine found perhaps his highest profile in the Senate by partnering with that committee’s chairman, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who died in August, to better define the roles of Congress and the president in authorizing the use of military force. So far he’s been unsuccessful in pushing a rewrite of the 1973 War Powers Resolution, but it has put him on the map.
Kaine often talks about his relationships with Republican senators. He and Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander played music together on stage at Bristol’s Rhythm & Roots festival last year — Democrat on harmonica, Republican on piano. GOP senators such as Bob Corker of Tennessee, Jeff Flake of Arizona and John Cornyn of Texas effusively praised Kaine in 2016 when he was on the national ticket.
His claim to the center rankles some Democrats. When Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court, for instance, Kaine said he would reserve judgment until they had a chance to talk. That drew rebukes from the left, as other Democratic senators took a harder line against Trump’s pick. Kaine eventually voted no.
“Unified opposition of the Democratic Party would have focused pressure on [swing] votes more intently,” said Ivonne Wallace Fuentes, a founder of an Indivisible progressive group in the city of Roanoke.
“One of my personal concerns is this ‘Virginia Way,’ ” Fuentes said. “That really doesn’t reflect the reality of our national politics right now.”
But Kaine insists it’s more important than ever to follow a rational process.
“This is the Supreme Court, I’m a senator. I’ve got to exercise advise and consent,” he said. “I took a lot of grief, and in some ways the grief was amped up because, wait, Kaine was on the ticket. How come he’s not out leading? But I’m very comfortable in my own skin on this stuff.”
Even as the left has criticized him for being moderate, some of his Republican colleagues from Virginia say he’s become too extreme.
“I think Tim Kaine is at his core a decent and honorable person . . . who looks at these jobs as public service,” said former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell (R), who served as state attorney general when Kaine was governor before succeeding him in the top spot. “But my sense is he’s gotten much more partisan since he went to Washington. . . . I think he’s part of that culture now. That’s really not where Virginia is.”
McDonnell, who was indicted on federal corruption charges but had his conviction overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, has not endorsed anyone in this year’s Senate race. He said the Republican candidate — Stewart — went too far in promising to run a “vicious” campaign.
Stewart has attacked Kaine for accomplishing little during his time in the Senate, saying that Kaine simply opposes Trump at every turn.
Kaine counters that he has sponsored or co-sponsored 17 bills that were signed into law by Trump, including measures recognizing Virginia Indian tribes, overhauling the benefits appeals process for veterans and creating an employer tax credit for hiring a military spouse.
But Kaine condemns Trump’s style, blaming the president for setting a destructive tone and fueling divisions. At a Democratic breakfast last month in Virginia Beach, he ridiculed Trump for constantly threatening to veto bills but never following through. “When the bill gets on his desk he looks at it and thinks it was his idea,” he said, to big laughs.
Kaine is trying to play the long game: Cooperate where he can but oppose what he sees as harmful Trumpian politics. As he travels Virginia to help other Democrats get elected to Congress, Kaine wields his campaign theme of “for all” as a kind of insult to the spirit of Trump.
“I think he has a deep antipathy toward this guy,” said Larry Roberts, who was Kaine’s chief counsel as governor. “It’s not Republicans. Yeah, he can work across the aisle, and the president has signed 17 of his bills. . . . It’s just that this guy is the polar opposite of everything Tim Kaine stands for.”
When Kaine returned to the Senate the Monday after the 2016 presidential election, John McCain was the first colleague to stop by.
“He just said, ‘Look, I’m the only one here who knows how you feel — being on a national ticket, losing,’ ” Kaine said. “He said the key is just to get right back to work.”
Kaine’s office once belonged to McCain, and a picture of the Arizona Republican hangs on the wall across from his desk, where he can see it every day.
Kaine insists he is not thinking about running for president, but the denials don’t seem absolute: “I never had in my mind that I wanted to run for president,” he said. “I’m not at the center of my own ambitions.”
On the prospect of being a running mate, though, he is much more direct.
“No, somebody else should do it,” he said. “Absolutely. There’ll be plenty of good people. . . . I will be able to be as helpful to a president in the Senate as I would be as a running mate. Maybe more.”
This is the second in a two-part look at the candidates running for U.S. Senate in Virginia. Earlier: Corey Stewart.