Kaine: Voters can only trust Democrats to work toward economic recovery

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine touted his party’s “big, big win” in the Pennsylvania special House election Tuesday while glossing over the Democrats’ loss of an incumbent senator and the fact that another senator now faces a tough runoff.

Instead, Kaine talked about how keeping the late Rep. John Murtha’s (D-Pa.) seat has boosted his party’s morale and demoralized Republicans.

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“I think that there is a very good feeling about that race,” he said. “The energized Democratic turnout and the size of the margin in a race that the Republicans actually were pretty cocky they were going to win definitely has people wreathed in smiles today.”

Democrat Mark Critz defeated Republican Tim Burns by almost eight points in the race for the seat, according to unofficial results. Some public polling before the vote had Burns in the lead by one point.

“It’s got to rattle them in terms of being able to tactically energize their folks,” Kaine said of the Republicans.

Republicans argued the Democratic Senate and gubernatorial primaries in Pennsylvania helped the party with turnout.

“Yesterday’s special election was held during one of the most hotly contested Democratic primaries in the country – we knew going into Election Day that Democrat primary voters would be the deciding factor.  Unfortunately, come November endangered Democrats they won’t be able to hide from their record of supporting the liberal Obama agenda of higher taxes and more spending that has done nothing to create jobs.  On election day voters will hold Democrats accountable for ignoring their constituent’s concerns,” said Republican National Committee spokeswoman Katie Wright.

Kaine said the result proves that what was expected to be the GOP’s message for the cycle — repeal healthcare reform, criticize President Barack Obama — is a recipe for defeat.

“The Republican candidate made it a referendum on President Obama and wanting to repeal healthcare reform. Many Republican leaders nationally are saying that’s what we need to do to win races. And they tried it and they got drubbed,” Kaine said Wednesday after addressing the National Press Club in Washington. “It’s got some tough lessons for the Republicans.”

During his speech, Kaine cited Dr. Rand Paul’s victory in the Kentucky Senate primary over the Republican establishment-backed Trey Grayson as a sign of a brewing intra-GOP “civil war.”

“There is a corrosive and divisive civil war occurring on the Republican side,” he said.

But Democrats have their own problems with party unity. Progressive groups and unions poured millions into Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter’s (D) primary challenge to Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D). And in Pennsylvania, national and state Democratic officials almost uniformly backed Sen. Arlen Specter (D), who was defeated by Rep. Joe Sestak (D). While Specter pledged to support Sestak in the general election against former Rep. Pat Toomey (R), Halter and Lincoln are embroiled in a runoff. Halter’s supporters aren’t backing down.

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“From the minute the polls closed tonight, we began our renewed efforts to elect Bill Halter to the Senate in the runoff election,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement.

“The mere fact of competitive primaries is not a sign of weakness,” Kaine insisted. “Primaries can be a sign of health. When I got into politics in Virginia, you never had Democratic primaries, because you were lucky to get one Democrat to run for anything.”

He said it’s only when there’s “bad blood” that primaries are harmful. “We’re not going to have trouble pulling together in any of these states after the primary is done.”

Kaine’s message was echoed by Pennsylvania Democrats.

“Now we’ve got to unify,” Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) said Wednesday. “When that kind of election takes place, there’s probably a lot of reasons that are brought to bear. But you had an opponent who had a lot of resources and ran a strong campaign. Sometimes we can analyze reasons, and there’s sometimes more than one. But the key thing is unifying and getting behind Joe Sestak so we make sure we have a Democratic senator.”

In his speech Wednesday, Kaine said the party’s top priority would be turning out 2008’s “first-time” voters.

“If we can enhance the turnout [of] 15 million American first-time voters in 2008, we can make a significant difference in close races all over this country,” he said.

Kaine said that healthcare reform would play a significant part in helping motivate the Democratic base.

“The energy level on our side dramatically went up after healthcare passed,” he said. “People were very, very excited to feel like they had a part in something historic. To the extent that they feel like that’s in danger, that can be a very effective tool for getting them to see the stakes are high.”

It likely won’t be a universal strategy. Critz was able to win his House race despite saying he opposed the Democrats’ healthcare reform plan.

J. Taylor Rushing and Michael O'Brien contributed to this report.

This story was updated at 7:22 p.m.