Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine opted from the start of his victorious Senate campaign in Virginia to do something that few other swing-state Democrats aside from Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio decided to do: run with President Obama.
Meanwhile, Kaine's opponent, former GOP Sen. George Allen, and outside groups linked Kaine to Obama relentlessly at first, especially on energy policy.
Allen's camp had anticipated that the Republican presidential nominee would carry Virginia ever since Allen entered the race at the start of 2011. The GOP had also counted on Allen's 2006 “macaca” moment not being fatal to his campaign this time, although the memory of the incident clearly damaged him in racially diverse areas of the commonwealth.
Last year, Republicans had every reason to believe that the numbers would change in their favor after GOP Gov. Bob McDonnell's 18 percentage-point thumping of Democratic state Sen. Creigh Deeds in the 2009 gubernatorial race, three U.S. House seats flipping for Republicans in 2010, and positive showings by GOP state legislative candidates in 2011
Taking those results as a rebuke of Obama's presidency, Republicans tied Kaine to Obama from the get-go, referring to him as the president's "cheerleader." They especially linked the two Democrats together on energy production, something they counted on resonating in coal country.
Kaine, however, proved to be a different kind of Democrat than the overtly liberal caricature the GOP drew of him. His breakout moment came during the first debate when he aggressively went after Allen's spending record in the Senate while boasting of cutting spending by a greater margin than Allen did as governor. Few other Democrats in competitive Senate races could find a way to hit their Republican challengers from the right on fiscal issues without alienating the Left. Kaine threaded that needle while also touting his support of “clean coal.”
In fact, the Democrat boarded a helicopter and shot a TV ad above a coal plant in Wise County, a development he oversaw while governor.
Meanwhile, Kaine put on display the differences he had with the president on foreign-relations issues, such as Syria and Israel, while also saying he had pushed for more energy exploration off the Virginia coast despite the Obama administration’s stance.
None of those issues, however, put him at odds with Democratic Sens. Jim Webb — whom he was seeking to succeed — or Mark Warner, Kaine’s predecessor in the governor’s mansion and the most popular elected official in the commonwealth. In that regard, Kaine could campaign as a “Virginia Democrat” without completely distancing himself from the label of “Obama Democrat,” a tagline that haunted Deeds in 2009.
Kaine made only one major error, at least politically, in the race: suggesting during a debate in McLean that he would be open to an income tax of some sort for all Americans, even the poor. Allen's campaign pounced. Kaine phrased it as another example of how he would be willing to work in a bipartisan fashion instead of dismissing ideas in a knee-jerk way.
Kaine's victory debunks the theory that outside groups can tip an election to a strong Republican candidate on negative advertisements alone. No other Senate race in the country had more outside spending in it than Virginia, the majority of which went against Kaine. Yet he withstood the barrage and held equal polling averages with Allen throughout the race, finally breaking away with small but consistent leads during the fall. That came as Obama showed durability in his polls, suggesting that the president just might win reelection after all.
Perhaps the most important development in Virginia is its shifting demographics in the last decade.
Virginia has a lower unemployment rate than most other states. At the same time, much of the commonwealth’s economy is tied directly to the federal government, especially in the defense industry. That hurts the GOP argument about scaling back the size of government, because doing so would mean disproportionate job losses in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.
Bottom line: For the Republicans to be competitive in Virginia at the federal level, they will have to connect with the growing number of minorities to mitigate declining white populations in GOP strongholds such as Appalachia and the southern part of the state. They will also have to nominate someone who represents the face of the “new” Old Dominion state, not the old one, and run against a weaker Democratic candidate than the institutions that are Kaine and Warner.