It’s no surprise that of the nation’s two major party chairmen, Michael Steele scores the lion’s share of press coverage. From his first days as head of the RNC, he’s racked up a continuous stream of scandals, gaffes, dust ups, and distractions, culminating this week with the revelation that the party paid for an outing at a bondage-themed lesbian strip club. But while Steele has flailed publicly, DNC Chairman Tim Kaine, the former governor of Virginia, has helmed a smooth and relatively successful operation.
In fairness to Steele, Kaine’s role is inherently different as head of the party in control of the White House and Congress. With President Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid to speak for the party, there’s less pressure for Kaine to draw attention to himself and define the party’s brand—just the opposite, in fact. Kaine’s mandate is to focus on organization and be an ATM. Nonetheless, his success in keeping the party operations scandal-free and his own media appearances free of controversy is a notable achievement. In recent weeks he has featured prominently on cable news, especially during the health-care debate, with nary a slip up to speak of.
“You never hear him gaffe, you very rarely see him getting in any embarrassing situations at all—I just can’t think of one,” Joe Trippi said.
“You never hear him gaffe, you very rarely see him getting in any embarrassing situations at all—I just can’t think of one,” Democratic strategist Joe Trippi told The Daily Beast. “It doesn’t mean the DNC’s been pure all these years, but under Kaine’s leadership that’s just not something you're likely to run into.”
In terms of fundraising, the DNC has performed competently under Kaine, raising close to $93 million as of January and easily outpacing the numbers put up under Howard Dean, whose DNC took in $117 million over the entire 2005-2006 cycle. Michael Steele’s RNC, despite bringing in more money, has about $1 million less cash on hand due to its higher burn rate. (Kaine is limited in that the DNC under Obama does not accept money from PACs or lobbyists.) There’s still plenty of room for him to improve, however: As reported by Politico, a number of top Obama donors have not given the maximum $30,400 donation to the DNC. The money will be especially crucial given the Republican-friendly political environment heading into the midterms.
State party chairmen in swing states, where the DNC’s aid will be crucial to staving off heavy losses in 2010, said they were especially encouraged by Kaine’s political instincts picked up from his stint as governor.
“Both Governor Dean and Governor Kaine are people who ran for office, who served in an administration, so their perspective on what needs to be done as far as party building is probably different than someone who’s a professional consultant,” Pat Waak, the chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party, said. “It’s not theoretical... You’ve raised the money before, you know what the responsibility is to the donors, and you know how to make the case.”
Dan Parker, chairman of the Indiana Democratic Party, also emphasized Kaine’s gubernatorial experience in a tough state for the party.
“The fact the governor is originally from Kansas, that he served as a governor in a swing state—he understand the politics of those like myself who sit in a state the president won but most consider a red state,” Parker said.
Democrats have a mixed electoral record over the last year, with gubernatorial losses in New Jersey and Virginia, and Martha Coakley’s shocking defeat at the hands of Sen. Scott Brown in Massachusetts. Former Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder publicly called for Kaine’s ouster after the latter debacle, although his argument focused more on Kaine’s record as Virginia governor than DNC chairman. On the other hand, Democrats continue to outperform the national environment in special elections, with victories in Republican-leaning House districts like New York’s 23rd proving crucial to securing the majority that passed health-care reform last month.
“They’re supposed to be thrown out of the House, yet they’re winning the seats,” Trippi said. “So on that level they have a lot to take credit for.”
One area where the DNC has attracted some criticism is its use of the grassroots operation bequeathed to them by President Obama’s campaign, Organizing for America. Chris Hughes, the Facebook co-founder who helped run the campaign site myBarackObama.com in 2008, told The Daily Beast’s Dana Goldstein last month that he was disappointed with OFA since the election, which he described as understaffed and insufficiently independent. But there are signs that the grassroots operation is reawakening in a big way. OFA helmed an impressive push during the final weeks of the health-care debate, generating close to 500,000 phone calls to wavering lawmakers in just 10 days and earning praise even from former critics like Politico’s Ben Smith.
Democrats face huge hurdles in 2010 compared to the previous two election cycles, and Kaine’s DNC will have to be at the top of its game to preserve a workable majority in the House and Senate. But every disaster across the aisle underscores the value of Kaine’s understated competence further.
“It’s never good when a party chairman creates bad news, and it’s always good when they kind of fly under the radar and get the job done,” Parker said. “Tim Kaine is getting the job done.”
Benjamin Sarlin is Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.