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Sen. Jim Webb’s announcement in early February that he would not seek a second term wasn’t exactly a shocker. Democrats always knew that since Webb isn’t your typical Senator, he might not behave as others have and that they needed a Plan B.
For many, Tim Kaine has remained Plans B, C and D ever since Webb announced his plans. They think that the former Virginia governor is the only Democrat with the statewide name identification, fundraising ability and stature to hold the open seat next year.
So just two years after Barack Obama carried Virginia and the state was proclaimed as turning blue, or at least purple, Democrats in the Old Dominion seem apoplectic about the paucity of choices that they have for candidates next year.
They may be correct about Kaine’s potential given the Commonwealth’s thin Democratic bench, but it’s far from clear that the former governor is still the political powerhouse that he once was, or that some apparently assume he still is.
Kaine’s initial indecision about jumping into the race isn’t exactly reason for optimism for Democrats, even with the news Monday that he is increasingly likely to enter the 2012 contest. Reluctance isn’t one of the qualities most campaign strategists look for in a candidate.
Last year, reluctant Indiana Senate candidate Brad Ellsworth (D) didn’t exactly set the world on fire, but you can go back to the 1972 Delaware race pitting reluctant incumbent Sen. J. Caleb Boggs (R) against an aggressive 30-year-old challenger named Joseph Biden (D) for a textbook example of the weakness of a candidate without fire in the belly.
While recent Democratic governors in the Old Dominion, including Mark Warner and Chuck Robb, have successfully run for Senate, Kaine is now more than merely a former governor.
His popularity in the state stemmed from his centrist reputation, and from the fact that Republicans were unpopular during much of the time that he was in office. And as governor, he could avoid taking stands on the kinds of federal issues that often tend to pigeonhole a politician as a liberal or a conservative.
Voters tend to pay less attention to party in electing a governor than they do in selecting a Senator, which is why Republicans have held the governorships in Democratic bastions such as Hawaii, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont recently and Democrats have held the same office in reliably Republican states such as Kansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee and even Wyoming.
But after chairing the Democratic National Committee and spending the past few years carrying water for Obama, Kaine can be easily defined by Republicans as a partisan and easily linked to the president.