Zenith Fuel Systems plant manager Chet Zinnanti (center) talks with Democratic Senate candidate Tim Kaine (left) and Sen. Mark Warner at the plant in Bristol, Va., on Thursday.
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Sen. Mark Warner likes to tell a joke when he’s on the trail with Tim Kaine, and lately he’s been telling it a lot.
The Virginia Democrat crisscrossed the state with his fellow former governor last week for a two-day, nine-stop tour. They ended the trek at a rally in this historic college town on Thursday, exactly one year after Kaine entered the race for the seat of retiring Sen. Jim Webb (D).
“So it is with great affection that I turn over the mike to my friend of 32 years ... and, with your help, the future junior Senator from Virginia, Tim Kaine,” Warner said, with an emphasis on “junior,” to a crowd of nearly 400 just before the sun set on the downtown pedestrian mall.
The remark invited a roar of laughter at the rally, as it did an hour earlier with a small gathering of community members at a nearby state workforce center, which both Democrats helped launch as governors in the past decade.
Warner is three years older than Kaine, preceded him as governor and now is working to help his fellow Harvard Law School graduate join him in the Senate. Warner will surely have a similarly strong presence on the trail in the waning weeks of Kaine’s expected general election matchup with George Allen (R), a former Senator and governor.
As well-known as both Kaine and Allen are, both are also counting on the help of the two most popular politicians in the state. Allen will soon have a strong surrogate of his own on the trail in Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), a possible vice presidential contender. Like Warner and Kaine, the two Republicans are old friends, and McDonnell is expected to help Allen as much as possible.
Warner’s effect on Kaine is twofold. He’s highly popular across the state, scoring a 62 percent job approval rating in a Quinnipiac University poll last month, including 48 percent among Republicans and 66 percent among voters in the western part of the state, where Democrats have not performed well in recent years.
The first-term Senator also serves as a model for the kind of Senator that Kaine will be. Warner voted with his party an average of 91 percent of the time over three years in the Senate, according to CQ’s vote studies, but he’s also a member of the bipartisan “gang of six,” and the former businessman is remembered for working with Republicans as governor in the state Legislature nearly a decade ago to balance the commonwealth’s budget.
“We’ve got to have more people like Mark Warner in the Senate who are willing to be proud Democrats — proud of their values, proud of their principles — but when the election is over you’ve got to be reaching out and building a bridge, and that’s the kind of Senator I’ll be,” Kaine said at the rally.
Warner was prominently featured in a video the Kaine campaign released Monday with clips from the two-day, economy-focused tour.
Republicans in the state say they don’t mind the comparison. Chris LaCivita, a GOP strategist and former Allen adviser, said Warner’s votes in favor of the health care overhaul and other Democratic policies are indeed a good example of what voters can expect from Kaine.
“This is a guy who is trying to hide from the fact that he was Barack Obama’s and Nancy Pelosi’s and Harry Reid’s chief cheerleader as the chairman of the Democratic National Committee,” LaCivita said of Kaine. “You can run from your past, but we will not let you hide from it.”
Kaine senior adviser Mo Elleithee said Kaine’s time as DNC chairman is only a small part of his record, and the campaign will continue to remind voters of his long record as a Richmond city councilman and mayor, lieutenant governor, and governor. Voters who spoke with Roll Call following the two Charlottesville events came away impressed and said they trusted the pair to work together with Republicans.
“I do believe they want to get things done,” said Ron Cottrell, 53, a self-described independent. “If we change some key players out, maybe we can build some momentum.”
“I think that Kaine and Sen. Warner, they both talk like adults,” Jeff Boecker, 59, said after the rally. “And I think we need more people like that up there. Neither one of them is a flaming partisan to me. They’re both willing to make the hard choices people need to make.”
Kaine’s not the only candidate in the race highlighting his willingness to work across the aisle. On April 4, Allen spoke to small gatherings of supporters in Culpeper and Madison, just up Route 29 from Charlottesville, which Allen represented in the House for about a year after winning a 1991 special election.
Allen focused his stump speech on increasing domestic energy production, which he said Kaine has worked against, while supporters at both stops voiced concerns about the effects of Obama’s health care plan and deficit spending. He promised to be a deciding vote to repeal the health care law, to push for a balanced budget amendment and to unleash the state’s energy resources, one of the big issues he will focus on in the Senate.
The former Senator, who spoke more about what he will do than what he did in his one term in the Senate, said he sees potential Democratic partners on energy legislation in Sens. Mary Landrieu (La.), Mark Begich (Alaska) and Joe Manchin (W.Va.). He called his 2006 loss to Webb “humbling” and said the party needs to welcome “independents and sound-thinking Democrats” in order to win.
“Let’s make sure we are motivating and inspiring people to what I like to say is: Envision a better future,” Allen said in Madison. “Envision a better future than what we’re having to endure these days. And I think we can get folks on our side.”
Allen is no doubt looking forward to the conclusion of the state’s legislative business, when McDonnell will have time to join him on the trail. The Kaine campaign took advantage of the Congressional recess, allowing Warner to spend two full days with Kaine.
“Voters know that these are two guys that they can trust to work across the aisle, two guys who are always going to put Virginia first, and two guys who are just honest and trustworthy,” Elleithee said. “Clearly they’re both proud Democrats, but they’re never going to put partisanship first. This is a year when that is of great value.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.