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?
TK: I don't think there's anything permanent about American political life. If you had asked this question of the head of the Republican Party in 1880, if there were going to be a future where a majority of African Americans were Democratic, they'd say, "Are you kidding?"
So I'm not going to say anything is permanent, but what I will say is this: We gather everyone around the table, and not in a token way, but a meaningful way. The Democratic Party's commitment to inclusion is something that I think is going to be very, very hard for the Republican Party to match for a very long time.
Not that they shouldn't try. I think that both parties should reach out; it's what we ought to do. But one party supports significant reform of a health care system that has left 20 percent of African Americans without health insurance, while the other party opposes that and wants to roll it back. One party supports a significant expansion of financial aid for students who have demonstrated financial need, while the other party would not even produce one vote to support expanded financial aid.
We have been trying for months to provide ways for small businesses to get loans from community banks, which would be a huge benefit to minority businesses. The Republicans had blocked it for months, and finally we broke their filibuster in the Senate and are now moving forward on that.
At the end of the day, it's the policies that matter. So when you've got marquee Republican candidates running and saying that the Civil Rights Act wasn't that important, we didn't need to have a Fair Housing Act or Social Security is a Ponzi scheme that should be privatized, those policies ultimately are the things that speak loudest to voters.
TR: It makes strategic sense for the GOP to reach out to minority groups, but they haven't made it a priority at all. Why do you think that is?
TK: I'm no historian professionally, but the Republican Party — beginning with the Nixon presidency — decided that, in the aftermath of passing the Civil Rights Act, the Republicans should make huge gains in the South. When President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, he said he knew it was going to be consigning his party to minority status in the South for a long time to come. And the Nixon campaign in '68 made a very calculated effort to exploit some of the tensions that were out there. That was the Southern strategy, and I think that that strategy and that attitude persisted in the Republican Party for some time.
You still see that element of the party when you've got folks like Rand Paul, who says that the Civil Rights Acts weren't needed. You have key Republican leaders saying we should redraft the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, the equal-protection portion of the Constitution. Now, they're doing that to deal with issues of the Latino population of the United States, but again, they're sending off a signal where you question whether they're really a welcoming party.
TR: What do you believe to be the appropriate Democratic response to the rise of the Tea Party movement?
TK: I think the Tea Party is a grass-roots movement, and my feeling is that whenever there's energy on the other side, you've got to respect it. I respect the energy. I disagree with a lot of their positions. I disagree with what I take to be some of their motivations. And I also think, frankly, some of the Tea Party energy that I do respect and that we have to take seriously is getting turned against [itself]. In other words, we're going to win some races in November that we wouldn't have won if it weren't for the Tea Party.
The right response for us is to do what we know how to do. We've always been a grass-roots-driven party. In recent years, what has developed is that the heart of Republican campaigns tends to be TV ad buys, while the heart of Democratic campaigns tends to be canvasses and field efforts. And that's certainly what we're doing at the DNC.
We have the Organizing for America department that has 300-plus full-time community organizers all over the United States. We were able to engage 3 million Americans to take some affirmative steps to help us pass health care. We've been able to engage 5 million Americans to take volunteer, affirmative steps to get some part of the Obama agenda passed through Congress, and we are now engaging that network of staffers and volunteers heavily around the midterms.
The right strategy for us is first to point out our differences of opinion with the Tea Party guys; second, we ought to see that [Tea Party] energy and redouble our efforts to be energetic, grass-roots and person-to-person in our political outreach.
TR: Looking toward the November elections, it's not a very rosy outlook for the Democrats. In the wake of defeat, what will be the DNC's next step?
TK: I think we're going to hold on to both houses. I'm not conceding defeat. I believe we will. You want to have the election on the right day, when you're on the rise rather than on the drop. Even in my own gubernatorial campaign in Virginia, I never saw an internal poll that had me ahead until about 10 days before the election.
We've got some good strong poll movement coming our way, not only nationally but in a number of these key states. I'm glad the election's five weeks from today and not tomorrow, but we are seeing some good movement coming our way. The president's rally last night, which was to kick off a series of four rallies in different parts of the country, will, I think, be very helpful.
We know that midterms are tough. Since Teddy Roosevelt was president, the average president in [the] midterm loses 28 House seats and four Senate seats. And we're not living in average times, so we have to assume our headwind is a bit stiffer than normal. But we're planning on holding on, and holding on to both houses.
And then the president is going to continue to do the heavy lifts and the hard things that the American public asked him to do. After a lost decade, America has finally turned a corner and is heading in the right direction. Now we've got to keep heading in the right direction.
Cord Jefferson is a staff writer at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.