When Tim Kaine ran for the U.S. Senate in Virginia in 2012, Republicans attacked him in the same way they attacked virtually every Democrat running for Congress during Barack Obama’s tenure: They tried to tie him as closely as possible to the unpopular president.
In Kaine’s case, this required no rhetorical gymnastics or misleading analyses of voting records. Until he jumped into the Senate race left open by the retirement of Jim Webb, Kaine had been Obama’s handpicked chairman of the Democratic National Committee—a job that was itself something of a consolation prize after Obama chose Joe Biden instead of the former Virginia governor as his running mate. The GOP set up a website, cheerleaderinchief.com. Again, this wasn’t really a misnomer. In the modern era, a chairman of the party in power is pretty much a cheerleader for the president’s policies, promoting them to donors and the public as a prominent television surrogate. There is no such thing as a politically independent party chairman.
Kaine leaned into his close association, and friendship, with Obama. And in a good year for Democrats, he won.
As a Senate candidate, Kaine didn’t parrot Obama on every issue—he disagreed with the White House on the income threshold for extending the Bush-era tax cuts, for example, and on the specifics of a religious exemption to the contraception mandate in Obamacare. But unlike Democratic hopefuls from swing and red states, he didn’t go out of his way to distance himself from the president. “That would be inauthentic,” Kaine reasoned at the time, according to Mo Elleithee, a former top adviser.“People would see through that, and besides, that’s not who I am. He’s a personal friend and I support him.”