Tim Kaine Might Not Be the Perfect Answer

by Stuart Rothenberg March 17, 2011 · 10:41 AM EDT

Sen. Jim Webb’s announcement in early February that he would not seek a second term wasn’t exactly a shocker. Democrats always knew that since Webb isn’t your typical Senator, he might not behave as others have and that they needed a Plan B.

For many, Tim Kaine has remained Plans B, C and D ever since Webb announced his plans. They think that the former Virginia governor is the only Democrat with the statewide name identification, fundraising ability and stature to hold the open seat next year.

So just two years after Barack Obama carried Virginia and the state was proclaimed as turning blue, or at least purple, Democrats in the Old Dominion seem apoplectic about the paucity of choices that they have for candidates next year.

They may be correct about Kaine’s potential given the Commonwealth’s thin Democratic bench, but it’s far from clear that the former governor is still the political powerhouse that he once was, or that some apparently assume he still is.

Kaine’s initial indecision about jumping into the race isn’t exactly reason for optimism for Democrats, even with the news Monday that he is increasingly likely to enter the 2012 contest. Reluctance isn’t one of the qualities most campaign strategists look for in a candidate.

Last year, reluctant Indiana Senate candidate Brad Ellsworth (D) didn’t exactly set the world on fire, but you can go back to the 1972 Delaware race pitting reluctant incumbent Sen. J. Caleb Boggs (R) against an aggressive 30-year-old challenger named Joseph Biden (D) for a textbook example of the weakness of a candidate without fire in the belly.

While recent Democratic governors in the Old Dominion, including Mark Warner and Chuck Robb, have successfully run for Senate, Kaine is now more than merely a former governor.

His popularity in the state stemmed from his centrist reputation, and from the fact that Republicans were unpopular during much of the time that he was in office. And as governor, he could avoid taking stands on the kinds of federal issues that often tend to pigeonhole a politician as a liberal or a conservative.

Voters tend to pay less attention to party in electing a governor than they do in selecting a Senator, which is why Republicans have held the governorships in Democratic bastions such as Hawaii, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont recently and Democrats have held the same office in reliably Republican states such as Kansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee and even Wyoming.

But after chairing the Democratic National Committee and spending the past few years carrying water for Obama, Kaine can be easily defined by Republicans as a partisan and easily linked to the president.

Obama’s invitation to take over the job of DNC chairman must have been flattering to Kaine, and his willingness to do so may eventually get him a Cabinet post or other administration goodie. But it was a risky move politically for the former governor if he wanted to run again in the Commonwealth.

Of course, Kaine’s Obama connection isn’t automatically bad. If the economy rebounds or Congressional Republicans overplay their hand, the president could regain his popularity. And presidential year turnout among young people and African-Americans in the Old Dominion certainly would help Kaine if he becomes the Democratic nominee.

Still, Kaine’s service at the DNC changes his standing in a way that neither Warner nor Robb had to deal with when they ran for the Senate.

If not Kaine, who? Former Reps. Rick Boucher and Tom Perriello are two obvious names.

Boucher, who turns 65 later this year, served 14 terms in the House. He represented a southwestern Virginia district, meaning he would have to increase his visibility in the expensive D.C. media market and convince Northern Virginia voters that they should be enthusiastic about his candidacy.

While he sometimes diverged from party orthodoxy, including voting against the Democrats’ health care reform bill and earning high marks from the National Rifle Association, his lengthy record would be fodder for Republicans in a general election.

Perriello, who represented a district that stretched from Charlottesville to the North Carolina border, is more liberal than the state (he supported the stimulus, health care reform and cap-and-trade), but he’s demonstrated that he can put together a strong campaign and is an energetic candidate.

The 36-year-old one-term Congressman would be able to draw clear contrasts with the GOP nominee, and he could benefit from strong, presidential-year turnout among the groups previously mentioned, as he did when he won in 2008.

But Democrats could also look for someone who has never held office and therefore could, at least initially, avoid being pigeonholed ideologically.

I don’t have anyone particular in mind, but then again, I had never heard of Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) or Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) before they entered their races last cycle, and Democratic Sens. Al Franken (Minn.), Frank Lautenberg (N.J.) and Herb Kohl (Wis.) initially came out of nowhere to win Senate seats.

If Kaine runs and is truly motivated, he certainly can win. But that depends on the shape of the political environment, the dynamics of the presidential race and the Republican nominee.

Still, Democrats should be realistic about Kaine, and looking at him through rose-colored glasses isn’t the way to do that.