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The Death of the "Virginia Democrat?"

Tim Craig

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's expected appointment as the next chairman of the Democratic National Committee will likely undermine the Democratic candidates for governor ability to distance themselves from the national party.

Ever since Senator-elect Mark R. Warner (D) ran for governor in 2001, Virginia Democrats have gone out their way to stress that they are different from the national, more liberal, wing of the party. That branding of a "Virginia Democrat" - pro-business, socially moderate - was then used by Kaine during his race for governor in 2005. It also helped Sen. James Webb in 2006.

But now the head of the Virginia Democratic Party will also be in charge of the national committee. When the eventual Democratic nominee for governor takes on Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell, the GOP nominee, this fall, they won't be able to position themselves as somehow different than the national party without first distancing themselves from Kaine.

GOP officials in Richmond were gleeful when they heard about Kaine's appointment. "The Mark Warner model is dead," one Richmond-based GOP strategist said.

Democrats argue that it will no longer be a liability for them to be linked to the national party now that Barack Obama, who easily carried Virginia this year, is the titular head of the party.

But Kaine will also be easily attached to the Democratic leadership in Congress, who polls show are unpopular, and other elements of the national party that the governor will have to cater to, including national liberal bloggers, labor unions, environmentalists and other elements of the party base. And when voters go the polls this November, the election will no longer just be a partial referendum on Kaine, the governor, but also on Kaine, the head of the national Democratic party.

By Tim Craig  |  January 5, 2009; 10:48 AM ET
Categories:  Tim Craig  
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The problem for either party is that Virginia has no problem shifting the balance of power when one party gets too laze, haughty or otherwise incapable of governing. Remember, the Byrds ran Virginia as a Democratic State until Kaine's father-in-law pulled the Old Dominion in the Republican column. Since then the pendulum has swung back and forth. I wouldn't put too much stock in Obama being a huge bellweather for Virginia Democrats. That was more a vote on a Texas Republican than the Democratic Party. The Democrats have a bit of a problem. McDonnell is actually quite competent, whereas Gilmore was a hack. McAuliffe's presence in the Governor's race is a bigger problem, but compounds the Kaine appointment risks. If I were Tim Kaine - I wouldn't get real comfortable. Remember - Gilmore held that same seat for the Republicans only to discover that Virginia voters are very fickle. What worked once in Virginia doesn't really translate to national politics.

Posted by: mwcob | January 5, 2009 12:06 PM | Report abuse

I don't find this as problematic as you suggest here . . . The real storyline is that Obama has tapped a pro-life Democrat to head the DNC. Whereas your storyline asks how the "liberal Democrat" moniker might infect and influence politics here because of Kaine's new role, the real story lies in how this "Virginia Democrat" might bring some sense and red-state moderation to the DNC. When a local guy goes national, it is a sense of pride. When a national guy comes local (ie Terry McAuliffe) it is much more problematic. McAuliffe brings to Virginia politics all the Clinton and national party baggage. Kaine doesn't have that baggage (yet - though he will acquire it in due time . . . just not yet).

Posted by: chrisduckworth | January 5, 2009 1:28 PM | Report abuse

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