Tim Kaine is on a mission to put his 2016 nightmare behind him — and show a way forward for the Democratic Party.
Up for reelection to a second Senate term, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 vice presidential nominee is trouncing his opponent in almost every poll. Yet Kaine is running like he’s dead even, determined to stamp out a Republican whom he’s personally offended by, and to relegate the Clinton-Kaine debacle two years ago to a mere blip in his career.
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Kaine also wants to make a statement about the correct course for the Democrats as they debate how to take on President Donald Trump in 2020. The 60-year-old Virginia senator told POLITICO that he hopes his campaign will demonstrate that Democrats can beat Republicans in the Trump mold — his opponent, Corey Stewart, once boasted he was “Trump before Trump was Trump” — with a message of going high when opponents go low.
“Let them be the dividers, we’ll be the uniters,” Kaine said in a brief interview. “We should be the positive, optimistic, and forward-looking party.”
The Virginia Senate race, technically a swing-state contest, has proved to be anything but competitive. Stewart’s close relationships with some prominent white nationalists and campaign to preserve Confederate monuments have offended a swath of Republicans in the state. The national GOP is not committing resources to the contest. Trump has declined to campaign for Stewart despite enthusiastically endorsing on Twitter in June. And the Republican candidate has raised just $2.4 million, barely over a tenth of Kaine’s haul.
The white flag that Stewart and the GOP have seemingly raised has made Kaine only charge harder. He’s barnstorming the state, running ads, stumping for other Virginia Democrats, and intending to spend every cent of the money he’s raised in-state — all while welcoming the “America’s Dad” meme of 2016.
“I think he just feels like Virginia and Virginians are so much better than the rhetoric coming out of Corey Stewart,” said Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, who has known Kaine since law school. “He wants to show the rest of the country that Virginians don’t abide that.”
Susan Swecker, the chairwoman of the state Democratic Party, said Kaine has been “laser-like focused” on the race, hitting every corner of the state ever since the 2016 election loss. It was the first time Kaine has ever been on the losing side of an election.
“It didn’t just start with Corey Stewart as the nominee, it began right after 2016,” said. “He’s a very competitive person and I think he wanted to ensure that he never lost another race…It was a well laid out plan to not leave a stone unturned and to win by as big a margin as possible.”
Kaine has run an upbeat, come-together, almost sentimental campaign.
“We are going to send a message of hope this November,” Kaine has been telling crowds. “We don’t have to accept divisiveness or bitterness or anger,” he said at a recent debate.
His campaign made “America’s Dad” placards, an embrace of the meme that took hold on Twitter and among late night comedians during the 2016 campaign depicting the senator as a mild-mannered, lovably corny dad. Or “A human sweater vest,” as HBO’s John Oliver memorably put it. (The campaign even spliced together a video of the top “America’s Dad” moments.)
The familiar notes of disagreeing without being disagreeable have pervaded the campaign. Kaine regularly boasts about the 20 bills he wrote or co-sponsored that Trump signed. His closing ad released this week promises that he’ll “work with anyone” and echoes his campaign slogan: “A Virginia that works for all.” In case anyone missed the point, his PAC is also called ‘Common Ground.”
“The statement he wants to make is far more powerful when he shows that Virginians are making it than if he tells Twitter that Donald Trump is a bad president,” said Jesse Ferguson, a veteran of Virginia politics and Clinton’s deputy national press secretary in 2016. “He would have wanted to beat any Republican nominee, but running against a mini-Trump carries a bigger burden because it’s such the antithesis of who he is.”
Some Democrats say Kaine is still shell-shocked by the 2016 race. Warner recalled that the night before the election, Kaine had been talking confidently about what he’d be doing as vice president.
“The last two cycles haven’t gone as predicted so you can’t take anything for granted,” said Warner.
On the trail, Kaine has been gently distancing himself from the Clinton effort and suggesting that they didn’t take on Trump correctly.
“I’d be getting talking points from the Clinton campaign every day,” he told the Washington Post last week. “And it would be, ‘Here’s what we’re going to say about Trump today.’ And I’d say, ‘No, here’s what I’m going to say about Hillary today. And then I’ll say that thing about Trump.’”
He added that “there wasn’t enough being on the front foot. And you’ve got to be on the front foot.”
Clinton, for her part, has not donated to Kaine’s reelection, even as her PAC Onward Together has given to many House candidates. Clinton’s office did not respond to a request for comment.