Tim Kaine is a graduate of Harvard Law School, a savvy legal advocate who made a name for himself working with the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups to battle housing discrimination, and a multilingual world traveler who responds to questions with references to Federico Fellini’s films and Mario Vargas Llosa’s novels. But on a hot late-summer afternoon in the dusty southwest Virginia town of Galax, which seems about as far from Harvard Yard as an American can travel, Kaine was making no references to his best-and-brightest legal training, nor to foreign films. Instead, he was blowing a harmonica with the fellows who’d gathered at Barr’s Fiddle Shop, cranking out a foot-stomping rendition of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” As he campaigns for governor of Virginia, in the most critical of the November 8 off-year elections for the battered Democratic Party, Kaine is making like a good ol’ boy, wheeling around Virginia in a Dodge Dakota pickup truck, quoting Bible verses, shouldering a 12-gauge shotgun, announcing, “I enjoy shooting skeet” and playing that harmonica for all it’s worth.
Kaine, the state’s lieutenant governor, is in a tight contest with former Republican Attorney General Jerry Kilgore. If he succeeds in making a down-home connection with the retired coal miners and laid-off textile workers who are the critical swing voters of Appalachian Virginia, Kaine will do more than merely win the governorship of one of the most politically complicated states in the nation. He will give national Democrats something they want, and something they sorely need. The something they want is a strong start in the intense competition to fill the increasingly powerful and politically influential governor’s seats in the thirty-eight states holding elections over the next year. If Democrats win the two races in play this year–Virginia and New Jersey, where Democratic US Senator Jon Corzine maintains a narrow lead over Republican Doug Forrester–and a solid majority of the thirty-six contests to be decided in November 2006, as now seems possible, they will reverse more than a decade of Republican dominance at the state level. They will also begin to position the party as a more broadly competitive player in 2008–the “national party” that Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean keeps talking about. But to do that, Democrats must also secure the “something they sorely need” part of the equation: a major win in a Southern state.
The Democratic Party has been in decline in the South for a long time. But until the Bush years, that decline came in fits and starts that always left room to argue that the party could still compete in a region where working-class whites and African-Americans, as well as burgeoning Latino and Asian immigrant populations, have seen the “no-new-taxes, no-new-programs” approach of conservative Republicans speed the decline of rural economies, the loss of key manufacturing industries and the crumbling of healthcare and education systems. But since 2000, when George W. Bush secured the electoral votes of every state of the old Confederacy–reversing the progress Arkansan Bill Clinton had made in 1992 and 1996–Democratic fortunes in the South have been dismal. The party lost the governorships of South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama in 2002 and of Mississippi in 2003. In 2004 Democratic Senate seats in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Louisiana fell to the Republicans, while Bush gained not just his electoral-vote margin but a popular-vote cushion that more than offset Democrat John Kerry’s strength in the rest of the country.
The setbacks of recent years have renewed conversations among insiders regarding the old suggestion of the late Paul Tully, one of the Democratic Party’s most respected strategists, that Democrats should simply abandon the South and build on their base in the rest of the country. Even before the setbacks of 2004, University of Maryland political scientist Tom Schaller penned a widely circulated commentary in which he suggested that Democrats simply “stop trying” in the nation’s largest region. “Moving forward, the Democrats would be better served by simply conceding the South and redirecting their already scarce resources to more promising states where they’re making gains, especially those in the Southwest,” argued Schaller, whose views are frequently echoed in the quiet councils of Democratic leaders–councils that include fewer and fewer Southerners.