Why Cities Love Tim Kaine

The Democratic vice-presidential candidate built a career around winning urban and suburban voters. Could this be what Hillary Clinton needs to offset Donald Trump’s rural support?

Scott Audette / Reuters

PHILADELPHIA—In choosing Tim Kaine as her running mate, Hillary Clinton picked a partner who embodies the Democratic Party’s increasingly metropolitan future.

Kaine’s political ascent in Virginia—from mayor of Richmond to lieutenant governor and then governor and senator—has been propelled by his strength in the state’s racially diverse and heavily white-collar urban and suburban areas.

In following that approach Kaine departed decisively from the model that Mark Warner, now his fellow Democratic senator, utilized to win election as Virginia’s governor in 2001. Warner aggressively courted culturally conservative rural voters. Though Warner initially had great success with his strategy, it is Kaine’s model that has proven more durable for Democrats—not only in Virginia but, increasingly, around the United States. Even Warner relied on metropolitan voters to survive a hard turn toward the GOP outside urban areas in his razor-thin 2014 reelection. Those are the same voters who carried President Obama to his Virginia victories in 2008 and 2012—and on whom the Clinton/Kaine ticket is relying in 2016.

“There’s really only one model left for Democrats in Virginia,” said the Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, who advised an independent expenditure campaign for Kaine in his 2012 Senate victory, “and it’s urban/suburban.”

As the former mayor of Richmond, Kaine is the first (relatively) big-city mayor on either party’s national ticket since Democrats nominated Hubert Humphrey, the mayor of Minneapolis in the 1940s, as their presidential candidate in 1968.

In that sense, Kaine’s selection symbolizes the Democrats’ growing reliance on—and dominance of—metropolitan America. Democrats now control the mayor’s office in 23 of the 26 largest cities. The party’s presidential coalition is rooted in the cities and most populous inner suburbs. In 2012, Obama won 86 of the nation’s 100 largest counties, amassing a total advantage over Mitt Romney in them of nearly 12 million votes, according to calculations by the Pew Research Center. That allowed Obama to win comfortably, even though Romney won more than three-fourths of all the nation’s counties; the 100 largest counties alone provided nearly half of the president’s total votes.

At key moments, Kaine has strongly leaned into that modern Democratic urban identity. In that respect, he departed from the path that Warner had charted to victory before him.

In 2001, Warner, though a wealthy cellphone entrepreneur, won the governor’s mansion by assiduously courting rural Virginia. Warner sponsored a truck on the NASCAR circuit, repeatedly visited southwest Virginia, and even campaigned with the help of a bluegrass ditty composed by his colorful campaign aide David “Mudcat” Saunders. Warner’s victory briefly made Saunders a celebrity as the Democrats’ “Bubba coordinator,” and encouraged other Democrats in Virginia and elsewhere to find plausible excuses to splatter mud on their boots.

Warner’s victory had swept along Kaine as lieutenant governor in 2001. But when Kaine looked to succeed Warner in 2005—Virginia limits its governors to a single term—he and his team quickly concluded he could not replicate the Warner model. For one thing, Kaine’s opponent, Republican Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, was from Gate City in Scott County, in the state’s Southwestern tip. For another, Kaine, a devout Catholic, had long opposed the death penalty and had crossed swords over the years with the National Rifle Association.

“We knew that Kaine had a principled opposition to the death penalty—and to my knowledge no one before or since has won south of the Mason-Dixon line being an opponent of the death penalty,” said Pete Brodnitz, Kaine’s long-time pollster. “So we thought that going after rural voters with those kinds of issues were going to be a challenge. On the other hand, we knew Kaine had put a heavy focus on education, and that he was mayor of Richmond, and he was raising a family in a suburban-style community, kids going to public schools, we thought it would be easy for people to see that he understood life in suburbia because he was living it. We just thought that would be an easier connection.”

Back in 2005, Kaine did not take the aggressively liberal positions on cultural issues that Democrats now see as a key to suburban success. He promised that as governor he would propose no new gun control measures (though Brodnitz says Kaine regarded closing the gun-show loophole as fixing a current law, not adding a new one). On abortion, he always noted that, as an observant Catholic, he was personally opposed to the practice, while quickly adding he would not seek to ban it. And he did not support gay marriage (though in 2006 he would oppose, as overly broad, a state constitutional amendment to bar it).

Instead, Kaine courted suburban voters with bread-and-butter concerns that revolved around the challenges facing growing communities. “At the time the issues were all related to growth,” Brodnitz said. “The growth was causing a lot of problems. It was putting stress on the schools, stress on the roads, stress on the property taxes, because values were going up.” Kaine emphasized his support for public schools and combatting traffic not only by improving infrastructure but controlling sprawl, while also emphasizing his commitment to fiscal discipline.

Though Kaine had not led with social issues, Kilgore still hammered him on his opposition to GOP efforts to ban gay adoption and stressed his own determination to crack down on undocumented immigration (“What part of illegal does Tim Kaine not understand?” Kilgore’s campaign asked in one late ad.) Above all, Kilgore targeted Kaine’s opposition to the death penalty. Kilgore’s offensive pushed Kaine back from the inroads Warner had established four years earlier in rural places like Bedford, Roanoke, Wise, and Scott counties, each of which moved further toward the GOP compared to 2001. (Scott was Kilgore’s home county.)

But Kaine consistently exceeded Warner’s margins in the state’s big urban and suburban centers.  Warner had won Alexandria city by about 13,000 votes; Kaine pushed the margin to about 16,000 votes. Warner had won Arlington County by about 19,000 votes; Kaine upped the margin to nearly 29,000 votes. In Henrico County, a key suburban battlefield outside Richmond, Warner amassed a roughly 3,000 vote margin; Kaine increased that to 7,500. Kaine more than doubled Warner’s 26,000 vote margin in populous Fairfax County, crushing Kilgore there by almost exactly 60,000 votes. And Kaine flipped the two large exurban counties in Northern Virginia, narrowly carrying both Loudon and Prince William, each of which had tilted against Warner. Kaine improved on Warner’s showing as well across the urbanized Hampton Roads region in the Southeast that included Chesapeake City, Newport News, and Norfolk; most impressively, Kaine flipped the city of Virginia Beach, which had voted against Warner four years earlier. It added up to a solid 52 percent to 46 percent Kaine victory.

“By the time he ran for governor in 2005, Kaine had his model and it made sense for a Richmond mayor to run this way: He ran as a polished, well-educated suburban/urban candidate,” said Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. Sabato moderated a televised debate between Kaine and Kilgore and remembers being “stunned” at the contrast in styles. “Kilgore was the favorite and he was supposed to win,” Sabato recalled. “But he came across as the southwest Virginian he had once been. He had the southwest Virginia twang; he was not particularly polished. Kaine was so dominant it was almost embarrassing at times; I felt as the moderator I almost had to stop [the fight].”

After his single term as governor, Kaine faced off in 2012 for a U.S. Senate seat against George Allen, the former Republican governor and Senator. Compared to 2005, Kaine edged toward a more liberal definition on cultural issues: After the Virginia Tech mass shooting in 2007 he had aggressively pushed for instant background checks at gun shows in the state. And despite his personal opposition to abortion, Kaine attacked Allen over his support of a “personhood” amendment that defined life as beginning at conception, while also denouncing state legislation that would have required women to undergo an invasive ultrasound exam before obtaining an abortion.

Once again, Kaine struggled in the state’s rural regions. But, boosted by the presidential year turnout, he amassed even bigger margins in the state’s urban and suburban centers than in 2005. Kaine carried Fairfax, Alexandria, Arlington, Loudon, Henrico, and Richmond city with bigger vote margins than he did in his gubernatorial race—and, for that matter, larger margins than Obama did on ballot above him. (In Prince William County, with its large minority population, Kaine exceeded his 2005 showing but not Obama’s in 2012.) In Fairfax County alone, Kaine routed Allen by over 118,000 votes. And as in 2005, Kaine also ran well in the urbanized Hampton Roads region. “In the suburbs and exurbs, Kaine piled up enormous margins,” said Sabato.

The Democratic shift toward an urban focus in Virginia solidified the next year, when Terry McAuliffe won the governorship in 2013. Running against Republican Ken Cuc­cinelli, a hard-core conservative culture warrior, McAuliffe advanced a much more socially liberal agenda than either Warner or Kaine offered in their governor’s races. McAuliffe, as I wrote at the time, endorsed “gay marriage; universal background checks for gun purchases; an assault-weapons ban; a pathway to citizenship for immigrants here illegally; a mandate on employers health insurane to include free contraception coverage; and limits on carbon emissions from new coal-fired power plants.” Only a few years earlier, any of those positions—much less all of them—might have been considered politically fatal in Virginia. Yet lifted by the state’s biggest population centers, McAuliffe squeezed past Cuccinelli to a narrow victory.

By then, both Warner and Kaine had also embraced gay marriage, universal background checks, and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. As a senator in 2013, Kaine also voted to reinstate the ban on assault weapons and ban high-capacity ammunition magazines (while Warner, with one foot still in rural Virginia, opposed both measures).

The story came full circle when Warner faced reelection during the Republican wave year of 2014. Most of the smaller and more rural counties where Warner had made his signature breakthroughs 13 years earlier in his gubernatorial race turned away from him. Counties such as Roanoke, Bedford, Botetourt, Wise, and Scott that Warner had won, or in which he had suppressed the GOP edge in 2001 produced big margins for his Republican opponent Ed Gillespie. Warner survived by fewer than 18,000 votes, against a national wave that swept away many other Democrats, mostly through his strength in the metropolitan areas of Northern Virginia and Richmond and a competitive performance in Hampton Roads. (As David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report points out, while Warner retreated in the rural counties that had buoyed him earlier, he also ran slightly, though critically, ahead of McAuliffe in several of them.)

“On election night last time, it was a Republican turnout model in 2014, and Gillespie was doing really well until he hit Fairfax,” said Tom Davis, a former Republican U.S. representative who represented the county. “And when he hit Fairfax he hit the blue wall there and got crushed. Fairfax, Arlington, Alexandria, eastern Prince William, even eastern Loudon.”

Davis, a former chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee and copious student of voting trends, says that Trump is likely to intensify Virginia’s urban-rural divergence from both ends. “Trump will run even better in some of these rural areas and worse in these urban areas,” Davis says. “These are trends that have developed over a series of elections, and Trump just puts an exclamation point on them.” Davis predicts Trump could lose Fairfax County alone by 170,000 votes, which would be a deficit over 50 percent greater than Romney’s.

Sabato forecasts the same pattern. And that, he says, leaves Trump facing very long odds in Virginia against a Democratic ticket continuing to consolidate the advantage in the state’s population centers that has underpinned Kaine’s career.

“It’s over, it’s totally over,” Sabato insists. “Because the margins for Clinton-Kaine in Northern Virginia, Richmond, Hampton Roads will be very substantial. Trump will run up the same kind of Cuccinelli rural majorities, and Cuccinelli lost by two and half points. But it’s going to be a lot worse this time because it’s going to be a presidential turnout.”

Clinton and Kaine will be counting on this same pattern of strong metropolitan showings to offset what could be a stampede toward Trump in non-urban areas far beyond Virginia. The same equation is key to the Democrats’ hopes in other competitive Sunbelt states like Colorado, North Carolina, Nevada, and Florida, as well as familiar Rustbelt battlegrounds like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Iowa. “The Virginia model,” says Sabato, “is now the national Democratic model.”

Leah Askarinam contributed reporting.