The morning after his vice-presidential hopes were dashed, Sen. Tim Kaine consoled a room full of heartbroken supporters on national television and introduced Hillary Clinton with a quote by William Faulkner.
“ ‘They kilt us but they ain’t whupped us yit,’ ” Kaine said, sending campaign loyalists into a frenzy of applause and tears.
Standing behind Clinton, he smiled, nodded and pumped his fist as if he hadn’t just experienced the greatest loss of his life in public office.
There was a time when it looked as though Kaine’s star would shoot from Virginia’s capitol city straight to Number One Observatory Circle on a wave of dad jokes and harmonica riffs.
But less than four months after his journey around the country began, he is poised to return to a Republican- controlled Senate with national profile but scars from a devastating defeat.
Virginians who have followed Kaine’s rise from Richmond mayor say he’s at his best when he can delve into big policy questions and leverage relationships, two important ingredients for success in the U.S. Senate.
But, first, he rests.
After returning to Richmond from New York City on Wednesday, Kaine planned to spend a few quiet days with family before heading to the District for the start of session next week.
“Senator Kaine looks forward to getting back to work for Virginians in the Senate next week on the issues and priorities he’s been fighting for since he took office nearly four years ago,” spokeswoman Amy Dudley said.
That means he’ll pick up where he left off advocating for war powers reform and a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force against ISIS as well as expanding career and technical education programs and combating campus sexual assault. He sits on Armed Services, Foreign Relations and Budget committees and the Special Committee on Aging.
Kaine’s expertise on the constitutional powers of the presidency will be particularly valuable as Donald Trump assumes office, given Trump’s campaign promises to upend the government.
“If Trump indeed, as many suspect, has little patience for separation of powers and limits on presidential authority, it is going to take leaders such as Kaine to be forceful counter- voices to the next president,” said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.
The role is a heartening consolation prize for Democrats stunned by their overnight loss of the White House.
Clinton salved those wounds with an optimistic concession speech in which she thanked Kaine and his wife, former Virginia education secretary Anne Holton.
“It has been a joy getting to know them better, and it gives me great hope and comfort to know Tim will remain on the front lines of our democracy, representing Virginia in the Senate,” Clinton said.
But Rozell noted the “Stronger Together” campaign failed Kaine when advisers told him to play attack dog in the vice-presidential debate against Indiana Gov. Mike Pence — a stance that deviated from Kaine’s sunny disposition.
“It looked like someone else occupied his body that night,” Rozell said. “It was almost disturbing. You don’t try to be who you’re not, because it comes across. It made him look a little bit like a jerk that night.”
Still, the ever ebullient Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) put a positive spin on Kaine’s future, saying the campaign showed the nation what Virginia already knew.
“No one works harder or cares more deeply about making life better for people from every walk of life than Senator Tim Kaine does,” McAuliffe said in a statement. “I was proud to advocate for his selection to join the Democratic ticket and look forward to the many ways Virginians and Americans will benefit from his continued leadership in the United States Senate.”
Although in the minority party, he could follow a path forged by Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who rose to speaker after a failed bid for vice president on Mitt Romney’s ticket, or Bob Dole, who twice served as Senate Majority Leader and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee after losing GOP presidential nominating contests.
In the Senate, Kaine could have renewed influence on veterans and military issues — an area in which Virginia’s clout has been greatly diminished since the 2014 ouster of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and a string of retirements in the House.
“I don’t think there’s any question that his profile’s a little bit higher having just come off a national ticket.” said Mo Elleithee, a Democratic strategist who runs Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service and says Kaine remains modest if better known now. “Knowing him, I don’t know that that changes his approach to anything. What they talked about on the campaign trail was what he was working on in the Senate.”
Kaine made history as the first member of a presidential ticket to deliver a speech in fluent Spanish. During the divisive campaign, he talked about lessons learned at an African American church in Richmond where he has worshiped for decades.
Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) recalled an understated yet powerful ad from Kaine’s 2001 campaign for lieutenant governor: the clasped hands of a white child and a black child filled the page.
Kaine was the first governor outside Illinois to endorse President Obama, who then asked him to chair the Democratic National Committee and later to run for Senate.
Beyer said he had hoped as vice president, Kaine “could really be a healer. He was liked and respected by almost everyone in the Senate. That would have been a great step forward. It was not to be.”
In the aftermath of defeat Wednesday, Kaine drew on a lifetime of helping people face difficult situations.
“His speech was eloquent and erudite and spoke to the better angels of our nature,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.). “I think he definitely emerges as a potential phoenix from these ashes.”
Kaine remains popular in the state; an Oct. 30 Washington Post poll showed that 51 percent of voters viewed him favorably, compared with 42 percent who saw him unfavorably.
And despite the outcome of the election, Connolly noted that Clinton won Virginia by about five points, in part thanks to Kaine. It was the only Southern state that voted for the Democrat.
Virginia voters defied national trends with double-digits wins in fast-growing Loudoun, Prince William and Henrico counties — all of which could help Democrats hold on to statewide office in the future.
Kaine faces reelection in 2018.