Top Dems have Kaine’s back even if party loses big time in November

Senior Democrats in the White House and on Capitol Hill are expressing confidence in party Chairman Tim Kaine despite the possibility of huge losses in the midterm elections.

In an interview with The Hill, White House senior adviser David Axelrod said the Obama administration will “absolutely” have confidence in Kaine’s leadership even if Democrats take a drubbing this fall.

Axelrod praised Kaine’s work on the nuts-and-bolts of party building, especially in comparison to the more controversial leadership style of Kaine’s GOP counterpart, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele.

“I think Tim Kaine is out there doing what he should be doing — building the party, building the party apparatus,” Axelrod said. “That is what you want a party chair to do. That is the guts of the job.”

Lawmakers and party insiders contacted by The Hill expressed unified support for Kaine’s work as chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and praised him for working to channel President Obama’s grassroots support into a tool for governing.

Kaine has worked quietly to integrate the White House’s political arm, Organizing for America (OFA), into the party’s structure while also juggling a heavy travel and fundraising schedule to prepare for the midterm elections.

Those efforts have seemingly insulated Kaine from the maelstrom of blame that can often tarnish party leaders who sustain heavy electoral losses during their time in charge.

Kaine told The Hill on Monday that he’s not afraid of being measured by the results of November’s elections, but noted that he discussed the tough electoral landscape with Obama before he agreed to serve as party chairman.

“I want to be measured by results, and I’ve also never been afraid to tackle a really tough challenge,” Kaine said. “I do serve at the DNC members’ pleasure, but I also serve because the president asked me.

“After the election, folks will make up their mind about me,” Kaine, 52, added.

Many party members have already rendered an early — and positive — verdict about Kaine’s chairmanship. Many sing his praises for having worked behind the scenes to put the party in the best possible situation going into this fall.

“I haven’t heard any grumbling about Tim Kaine,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), a vice chairwoman of the DNC. “On the contrary, I’ve only heard praise.”

Kaine’s smooth relationship with congressional leaders stands in stark contrast to that of his predecessor at the DNC, Howard Dean.

Dean famously bickered with then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) during his tenure, though the former Vermont governor also attracted accolades for his “50-state strategy,” which some say helped Democrats regain control of Congress in 2007.

Kaine is much more reserved than the outspoken Dean.

The former Richmond mayor isn’t known for his sound bites, and unlike Dean and Steele, he is not gaffe-prone.

 Kaine enjoys a close personal relationship with the president, a friendship forged over the years after Obama, then a freshman senator, helped Kaine’s campaign for Virginia governor in 2005. Kaine returned the favor by becoming one of the earliest supporters of Obama’s presidential campaign.

Obama’s shortlist of vice presidential candidates came down to then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and Kaine. Bayh was deemed too conservative by some on the left, and Biden’s experience won out over Kaine.

After the election, Obama approached Kaine about leading the DNC. Kaine said the offer “surprised” him — especially since he’d written the president-elect to recommend someone else for the job (Kaine won’t say whom).

Kaine said he talks “frequently” with Obama, often to relay themes Kaine had seen during his travels on behalf of Obama and the DNC.

“I think [President Obama] has an extraordinarily high regard for him, so much so that he was on the shortlist of candidates for vice president,” Axelrod said of Kaine. “They get along very well.”

Kaine was still governor when Obama asked him to serve as DNC chairman, which set up a period of double-duty that Kaine acknowledges was exhausting. The overlapping jobs made for a “very challenging time” for Kaine, said Ray Buckley, the chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party and another DNC vice chairman.

Among the biggest challenges Kaine faced at the DNC was how to mobilize the OFA members into working for Obama’s agenda.

“The Democratic Party apparatus has always been a little chaotic at the rank-and-file level. [Kaine has] really been able to marshal the resources,” said Wasserman Schultz. “His organizational skills — his ability to bring in OFA. We had a little bit of an adjustment period. Now it’s humming along very well.”

The DNC boasts active OFA volunteers and staff in all 50 states and in all 435 congressional districts, with nearly 55,000 local events held in the past year and a half. The nearly 5 million people whom Democrats said have taken action through OFA have mobilized in favor of healthcare reform, Wall Street reform and the fall’s elections.

Even Republicans acknowledge Kaine’s talents.

“He comes from a very competitive state — he’s a survivor in a very competitive state,” said former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), who served as chairman of House Republicans’ campaign arm while in Congress. “He knows how to frame issues; he comes from the rough-and-tumble world of Richmond politics. It’s hard to argue with his record. He knows how to win.”

Davis admitted that Democrats are now more successful at coordinating their message, but said that Kaine might have benefited from using Obama even more aggressively in fundraising and messaging.

Democrats argue that the former governor has done the most he could to build the party going into November.

“Certainly his job is safe, but all of us are judged on the results of Election Day,” said Buckley. “When we have a much better year than expected, certainly Gov. Kaine should be given credit.”

Kaine said he did not know how long he would stay on at the DNC, or what might lie ahead for his career. He said he had anticipated entering the administration in some type of education post before being asked to run party headquarters.

“This is only the beginning for Tim Kaine,” said Wasserman Schultz. “I’m hopeful that he’ll one day run for something again.”

Buckley hinted that Kaine could wage his own successful White House bid down the line.

“He certainly has a fan base in New Hampshire, if he chooses to do that,” Buckley said.

Kaine, like Axelrod, said he was focused on “public service,” a desire for which he said he developed during his time as a missionary.

“What I’ve learned is that if you make your goal serving others, you’re not going to be short of opportunities to do it,” Kaine said.