Virginia Hates Tyrants

Senator Tim Kaine reflects on what it took to make his commonwealth bluer than Massachusetts.

Tim Kaine raises his arms during an election party
Steve Helber / AP

Life under President Donald Trump has Tim Kaine thinking a lot lately about the Book of Job. The results of last night’s election in Virginia, where Kaine is a U.S. senator, had him thinking of Job too.

“He thought, I’d been such a good person. So is it just all pointless? I’m going to suffer just pointlessly,” the onetime missionary paraphrased the story for me, sitting in his office on Capitol Hill and reflecting on the election. What Job experienced is not unlike what the country is going through, Kaine was telling me. “There’s been pain and there’s going to be more, in my view. But I think the outcome is going to be: We held fast to our principles. We’re sadder but wiser, but we held fast to our principles. And we’ve continued to show the ability to move forward.”

Move a few electoral votes around from Election Night 2016, of course, and Kaine would be sitting in the vice president’s office right now. He says he doesn’t reflect on that would-have-been too much, focusing instead on what’s in front of him. What’s in front of him is a state that was until 15 years ago solidly Republican and is now, as of last night, solidly blue, with both chambers of the state legislature going from Republican control to Democratic control. Democrats now have control of every major office in the state. These latest wins were predicated on President Donald Trump’s deep unpopularity and an appeal to suburban voters—exactly the combination Democrats will need to rely on in order to win again in the much bigger election next year.

“We have a weird state seal in Virginia. It’s a victorious woman standing atop a deposed tyrant,” Kaine told me. “We hate tyrants—our state was born out of opposition to tyranny. We still hate tyrants. We can see them coming a mile off, and we reject them. And that’s one of the reasons that Trump is so unpopular in Virginia, is that we’ve seen narcissistic, anti-science, bigoted bullies too often in our past, and we’ve decided to put away the childish things. We want something different.”

Our full interview can be heard on the latest episode of Radio Atlantic. What follows is a lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

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Edward-Isaac Dovere: You’ve been in Virginia politics since the 1990s. What was it like to watch the state flip to fully blue this week?

Tim Kaine: It was amazing. I mean, this was the last step of essentially a 20-year effort to assemble a big picture, like the jigsaw puzzle …. Our legislature has been blocking us in Virginia for doing meaningful things on gun safety, even after suffering through Virginia Tech and Virginia Beach and so much gun violence; even blocking raising the minimum wage; blocking the Equal Rights Amendment; tried so hard to block us from expanding Medicaid—with Republicans in control, disenfranchising voters rather than making it easier for people to vote.

Dovere: Was it that Trump’s win in 2016 showed that the Democratic Party had hit rock bottom?

Kaine: I think a danger for Dems—don’t overcorrect. I mean, in 2016, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. It's really hard to do that for a third term—Dems don’t do that. It's hard to do that for a woman. It’s hard to do that with Russia and the FBI putting their thumb on the scale against you. You don't have to turn everything over  … You don’t have to turn everything topsy-turvy. And I do worry a little bit about the party overcorrecting.

Dovere: There were a number of firsts in these election wins for Democrats in Virginia, including the first Sikh local elected official, and the first Muslim state senator. Do you worry at all about white voters feeling left out of where the Democratic Party is headed?

Kaine: Our party is a party where everybody’s welcome at the table and nobody is pushed away from the table. For some, it causes them angst because they might see new faces around the table and they think they’re losing something as a result. But what Virginians have learned is: “Wait a minute; we’re not losing anything.”

Dovere: One way to read the results of last night is that the impeachment conversation so far has either helped Democrats or not registered as a factor in a significant way.

Kaine: Our legislative candidates’ polling in September, pre–impeachment inquiry, and then late October—Trump’s numbers went down. So the impeachment inquiry wasn’t hurting them with the public. It was hurting Trump with the public … Now, did it increase Republican turnout? You know, so sometimes your numbers can go down, but it can energize people. We'll have to do a little more reading of the tea leaves to figure that out. But I think you can very safely say that the impeachment inquiry did not hurt Democrats in swing districts in a battleground state like Virginia.

Dovere: You have private conversations with your Republican colleagues all the time. Do they match up with the public defenses of him that they have been making?

Kaine: One-third think Trump is fantastic. They sincerely believe that, okay? But two-thirds are deeply worried about him, his character, his judgment, his emotional volatility, his ethics, the kind of people he has around him, how he acts and what he says. They’re really worried about it. But they’re deeply worried about the Trump voters turning on them … They cannot yet see a path to even stand up and rebuke President Trump, in their words, without making the Trump voter mad—and the Trump voter is now the GOP voter.

Dovere: How do you process the disconnect between what they say publicly and what they tell you?

Kaine: It makes me feel better than if they all sincerely believed Trump is great, because if there’s a mismatch between what I know they believe and what they’re saying, that’s an opportunity. If they all thought Trump is doing exactly what we think the president of the United States should do, I’d be depressed … For us on the Democratic side, who do have good relations with the other side, our chore is not to convince anybody what to think. Our chore is to give them a path to say what they already think—what we know they already think.

Dovere: Do you think the election results inform that thinking?

Kaine: It does suggest, look, Trump will drag you down. You know, I mean, Trump is posing danger to important values of the country. But he also could destroy the GOP, and they have to grapple with that. Do they want that to happen? There is a price to loyalty. And loyalty is damaging to a country we love. But loyalty is also damaging to a party that these people spent their whole lives working to promote.

Dovere: So should Democrats feel confident?

Kaine: I think if we assume it’s going to be easy, we make a big mistake. I do think the race is ours to lose … [In the 2018 midterms] some of the economic signs were strong, but there was a profound unease among the American electorate about the way this president is manifesting. He is the most known American in the world. Who he is sends a signal about who we are. But what Americans said in that race with a good economy is that's not who we are. And we want to send a clear message of repudiation that we don’t think this is who we are as a country. And we saw that same message … I mean, look, this is a guy who we already know will pull out all the stops. I mean, he’ll try to get Ukraine to help. He openly encouraged Russia to help. He says that there was no election interference when there was, you know—he will do anything to win. And we have to—not Democrats; we want to serve. Trump wants to win. We’ve got to want to win.

Dovere: There is no shortage of Democrats running for president. But as the former vice-presidential nominee, do you ever regret not being part of that group yourself?

Kaine: When I walked in here the day after I got back from 2016, my feeling was, I think the Senate is going to be incredibly important to saving this country in the next few years. And here I have this opportunity to be in a body that will be called on to save the country. Now, will we rise to the challenge or not? TBD, but I really felt like the Senate will be necessary to save this country in the next few years. I know what it is to run for president. I haven't done it, but being on the ticket. And if you do that, it’s all-in. So you’re a little bit of an absentee … Going back to my Job analogy, as we’re being tested and being tested to stay true to our principles, the Senate is really important in that. So I kind of felt like as long as Donald Trump is president, I have got to be right here.