The Root Interview: The DNC’s Tim Kaine on the Midterms

The party's chairman told The Root why he believes Democrats will retain both houses of Congress in November, at a time when enthusiasm is down even among black voters.

DNC Chair Tim Kaine with new party logo in September 2010.(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
DNC Chair Tim Kaine with new party logo in September 2010.(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In 1994, under the new Clinton White House, the Republican Party fielded a strong pack of candidates in the midterm elections. The result was that they took 54 House seats from the ruling party and wrested control of a Congress that had been largely under Democratic sway for several decades. That was also the year that Tim Kaine, a civil rights lawyer by trade, first won a seat on Richmond, Va.’s City Council, thus beginning a career in Democratic politics that would land him in the governor’s seat and eventually find him co-chairing Barack Obama’s presidential bid.

Now the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Kaine is in a far different position than he was in 1994. The election season, however, seems familiar. With a Democrat-controlled Congress and a progressive president presiding over a country in dire straits, many Republican voters are angry and desirous of change. It’s now Kaine’s job to thwart them and avoid a repeat of the year that saw Newt Gingrich rise to power.

Currently on a national tour to drum up support from the Democratic base, Kaine took a break to speak with The Root, address the Tea Party and predict that the Democrats will keep the House and Senate. Nobody said he wasn’t ambitious.

The Root: In the lead-up to the November elections, you’ve been on a whirlwind tour to reach out to the African-American community. What prompted this? 

Tim Kaine: It’s kind of who I am. I was a civil rights lawyer who never thought I’d be in politics; I was doing fair-housing cases in Richmond and then got sidetracked. I went into politics in my very diverse community in the city and became mayor. The thing that I love most about our party is the thing I love most about our country; I’m a big-tent guy.

I’ve been in 40-plus states as DNC chair already. And pretty consistently, I’ve tried to interact very significantly with African-American leadership. And now we’re out telling the story of a great president’s successes. But as [President Obama] said last night, there’s still much more to do.

The election is more about what’s still to be done rather than what has been done. And we need to make sure that — while the other guys want to take the country back — we have the president’s back, and that we turn out and support candidates who are pledged to work with him rather than folks who come into office pledged to oppose him.

TR: Voting and general political enthusiasm is down among African Americans. How can the Democrats remedy that?

TK: First, we have to just acknowledge and be realistic about the fact that enthusiasm is down compared to 2008. It’s not just African Americans; nobody votes in a nonpresidential year the way they vote in a presidential year … especially in 2008, which was a very energized, cathartic, emotional election, because we were making history in this country. And no one felt the pride in that more deeply than the African-American community. So it’s hard in a year where the president isn’t on the ballot … for there to be the same level of enthusiasm and excitement.

But here’s what we see: Polling that over the summer showed a big gap in enthusiasm between Republicans and Democrats has dramatically narrowed. Polling that showed a generic edge of Republicans over Democrats has dramatically narrowed — and just last week, there was a Gallup poll that showed Democrats with an edge.

The key is, now that the primary season’s over, that enables us to talk not about generic ballots but about who’s up in these races. And we think we can paint a very accurate picture of a Democratic Party that has been doing heavy lifting in the toughest economy since the 1930s, turning the economy from shrinking to growing, ending the war in Iraq, reforming the health care system and expanding student loan opportunities. Contrast that with a Republican Party that has not yet articulated anything they’re for. They are unified in being against what the president wants. Their opposition goes beyond policy to challenging his religion, challenging whether he’s a United States citizen and more nonsense.

TR: This year saw dozens of African Americans running for office on the Republican ticket. Can you see a future in which a majority — or even half — of African Americans are Republicans?