clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Tim Kaine was almost Barack Obama's VP. Here's why he could be Hillary Clinton's.

Democratic Senate Candidate Tim Kaine Holds Election Night Event In Virginia Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

With the Democratic convention a little over a month away, Hillary Clinton has already settled on a vice presidential frontrunner, according to Politico's Annie Karni and Gabriel Debenedetti: Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA).

In many ways, Kaine is the safest choice available to Clinton. Picking him wouldn't hugely excite Democrats' progressive base the way choosing Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren would. And he wouldn't be a historic step forward for Latinos the way Labor Secretary Tom Perez, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, or California Rep. Xavier Becerra would be.

But he's a popular senator from a swing state whose seat would be filled by a Democrat should he become vice president, and it's hard to argue he isn't qualified to assume the presidency should the situation arise. Overall, Kaine has perhaps the lowest upside risk of any potential pick, but the lowest downside risk too.

Who is Tim Kaine?

Senate Foreign Relations Cmte Holds Hearing On Cartels And US Heroin Epidemic
Kaine at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Kaine — who was born in Minnesota and grew up in Kansas City — moved to Virginia after graduating from Harvard Law and clerking for a federal judge. While at Harvard, he took a year off to work as a missionary in Honduras, where he became fluent in Spanish (a skill that could help him campaign in Latino communities as the VP nominee).

In 1994, he was elected to the city council of Richmond, serving as mayor (which was then a position selected by the council from its membership) from 1998 to 2001. That year, he narrowly won the state’s lieutenant governorship, and four years later he was elected governor in a highly competitive race.

Though behind in the polls for most of that 2005 election, Kaine pulled ahead of Republican state Attorney General Jerry Kilgore after the latter's attacks on Kaine's personal opposition to the death penalty backfired. (Kaine promised he'd enforce capital punishment anyway, and sure enough, he oversaw the executions of 11 prisoners, six of whom were black, during his time in office.)

Once in office, Kaine’s star rose fast. He endorsed Barack Obama very early in the 2008 primary cycle, and was in Obama’s top three when selecting running mates that year, after Joe Biden and then-Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN). Once Obama took office, he asked Kaine to take over the Democratic National Committee for retiring chair Howard Dean. Kaine served there for his last year as governor in 2009 (Virginia doesn’t let its governors run for reelection), and continued as DNC chief through early 2011.

After a few years out of elected office, Kaine ran in 2012 for the seat of retiring Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), beating Webb's predecessor and fellow ex-governor George Allen in the general election. While in the Senate, Kaine’s been a fairly reliable Democratic vote, though he has vocally criticized the Obama administration’s approach to Syria, advocating a more aggressive policy of humanitarian no-fly zones. Notably, he’s also pushed repeatedly for a formal authorization for US military actions against ISIS, and has called the current approach an "undeclared war."

He also made history for delivering a nearly 13-minute speech endorsing immigration reform in Spanish, marking the "first time a senator has delivered a full speech on the floor of the Senate in a language other than English," according to NPR.

The pros of vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine

Virginia Gubernatorial Candidate Terry McAuliffe Hosts Election Night Gathering
Tim Kaine and Governor-Elect Terry McAuliffe on election night, 2013.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Kaine is, first and foremost, a safe pick. He's a reliable Democrat in the Senate, voting with his party more than 90 percent of the time. But he also represents a must-win swing state, where he remains pretty popular. It’s unclear if that will actually wind up mattering (one poll found that Clinton would beat Trump by the same amount in Virginia whether Kaine or Warren were her running mate), but it certainly can’t hurt.

Kaine has also been subject to years of national scrutiny due to his tenure as DNC chair, and he made it to the very final stages of vice presidential vetting for Obama in 2008, making it unlikely there are too many skeletons in his closet. And, crucially, he is from a state with a Democratic governor — Terry McAuliffe, who is personally very close to the Clintons. That means that should Kaine win election as VP, McAuliffe would pick his successor, so Democrats would not have to sacrifice a Senate seat.

That might seem like a small thing, but Democrats are very bad at winning governorships in states where they totally should be able to win the governorship. That’s a liability for three potential VP choices: Warren and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), both of whom would be temporarily replaced by a Republican governor but also trigger a reasonably quick special election; and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), whose successor would be picked by Gov. John Kasich (R-OH) and serve until the midterms.

With the battle for the Senate currently looking close, it’s not clear Democrats can afford to give up even one seat. So though Warren, Booker, and Brown are all pretty prominent names on the VP shortlists, McAuliffe’s position gives Kaine a definite advantage over them.

The cons of vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine

Tim Kaine meme stating, "I think life is sacred, whether it's abortion or the death penalty"
Oops. (Note: The full quote is, "I believe life is sacred … and I haven’t hesitated to state consistently over the years that I am against abortion and the death penalty.")
AZ Quotes

Kaine is as boring as he is safe. He still has relatively low national name recognition, and picking him won't excite anyone in the Democratic base, or really any swing voters, given that they’re unlikely to be paying close enough attention to politics to know who he is beforehand.

Additionally, certain aspects of Kaine’s record could make him vulnerable to criticism from the left — as one might expect for a pre-Obama Democratic governor in a purple state. For instance, even during Kaine’s recent Senate campaign, he bragged about cutting the budget by more than $5 billion and eliminating the Virginia estate tax, which aren’t things the Democratic base will generally consider worth celebrating.

But the biggest drawback in picking Kaine, from a liberal perspective, would likely be his record on abortion. Though he hasn’t called for overturning the Roe v. Wade decision, he positioned himself as personally opposed to abortion, and in sympathy with many pro-life causes, during his run for Virginia governor in 2005.

As he wrote on his campaign site back then:

I have a faith-based objection to abortion. As governor, I will work in good faith to reduce abortions by

1. Enforcing the current Virginia restrictions on abortion and passing an enforceable ban on partial birth abortion that protects the life and health of the mother;

2. Fighting teen pregnancy through abstinence-focused education;

3. Ensuring women’s access to health care (including legal contraception) and economic opportunity; and

4. Promoting adoption as an alternative for women facing unwanted pregnancies.

Virginia's restrictions at that point, which Kaine wanted to uphold, included a 24-hour waiting period for abortions and a parental notification requirement, along with restrictions on Medicaid funding. What’s more, Kaine's actions as governor continually aggravated pro-choice groups, including approving funding for "crisis pregnancy centers" that try to steer women away from abortion and signing into law a bill creating "Choose Life" license plates.

Lately, however, Kaine has shifted his rhetoric on abortion toward that of a generic pro-choice Democrat. "We all share the goal of reducing unwanted pregnancies and abortions," his Senate website currently states. "The right way to do this is through education and access to health care and contraception rather than by restricting and criminalizing women's reproductive decisions. For that reason, I oppose efforts to weaken Roe v. Wade." He’s gotten perfect scores from Planned Parenthood and NARAL as a senator.

Perhaps Kaine’s anti-abortion past won’t make a difference to Clinton; it’s not like Democrats passionate about reproductive rights are voting for Trump this year. And there’s a long tradition of Democrats flip-flopping on abortion when the time came to run for national office: Ted Kennedy, Al Gore, Dick Gephardt, Jesse Jackson, and Dennis Kucinich were all pro-life at one point in time. Kaine’s flip came years ago, and maybe Democrats just don’t care.

But in a year where Clinton is conspicuously dropping the "rare" from "safe, legal, and rare" and calling for restoring federal funding for abortion, picking Kaine would result in a very mixed message about the ticket’s commitment to reproductive rights.

The map we see every presidential election is pretty much useless