This is What Winning Looks Like

Alexandria McAlpine/Fourth Estate


In 2001, the Commonwealth (that’s your stay-at-home, it’s-5-o’clock-somewhere drinking game word for this article) of Virginia had a Republican governor, a Republican lieutenant governor, a Republican attorney general, a Republican-controlled Senate, a Republican-controlled House of Delegates, two Republican U.S. senators, a Republican-majority House of Representatives delegation and gave its 13 presidential electors in the most recent election to the Republican ticket.

As recently as 2013, the Commonwealth (shot) of Virginia had a Republican governor, a Republican lieutenant governor, a Republican attorney general, a Republican-controlled Senate and a Republican-controlled House of Delegates. The 100-member House of Delegates had 67 Republicans.

Just looking at Northern Virginia, in the 2009 gubernatorial election, the Republican candidate won Loudoun County (with 61 percent of the vote), Prince William County (58.7 percent), Fairfax City (53 percent), and Fairfax County (50.7 percent).

Virginia was a red state — er, commonwealth (eh, what the heck, shot).

Voting Republican is not unusual for states in the former Confederacy. Of those 11 states, eight have Republican governors, nine send two Republican senators to Washington (and it would be 10 if the people of Alabama hadn’t nominated an accused child molester), 10 send majority-Republican delegations to the House of Representatives, 10 have Republican majorities in both chambers of their state legislatures, and 10 gave their electors to Donald Trump in 2016.

Virginia is an exception to all of those. From red/swing to blue in under two decades, it’s been one of the most remarkable state-level transformations in recent political history. At the national level, Democrats are looking to unseat an incumbent president, a very difficult task, and retake the Senate. I’m not a Democrat (I worked for the Republican Party of Virginia in 2017), but if I were, I would take a long hard look at our lovely commonwealth (shot) for some advice on winning.

You might think that a transition so dramatic and sweeping as the one I just described would require a transformative, charismatic leader. Someone with a passionate fanbase, someone who could whip up a crowd at a rally, someone with a slogan people hear once and never forget.

Maybe that could work too, but in Virginia, it took someone who plays the harmonica and someone who can make a tuna melt.

I’m of course talking about Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, two of the most boring, dorky politicians to ever walk the Earth. Yet, their leadership has been instrumental to making Virginia a place where Democrats can dominate.

By calling them “Senator” I was selling them short. With all the positions held between them — state party chairman, national party chairman, National Governors Association chairman, city councilman, mayor, lieutenant governor, governor and senator — Kaine and Warner could just about form their own country.

When voters cast their ballots for Kaine and Warner, they aren’t starting a revolution, or transforming society, or even taking a side. They are casting their ballots for competence, steadiness and boringness. There’s a comfort in knowing you will hardly hear about your senators except for once every six years when election time comes around. Voters know they will never see Kaine or Warner in a headline and never have to worry about them being wrapped up in a scandal. They just know they will represent Virginia in the Senate.

You might be thinking it was inevitable Virginia would turn blue because of population growth in Northern Virginia. It’s certainly true that those demographic shifts made the Old Dominion more winnable for Democrats. But if there’s one thing Democrats should have learned in 2016, it’s that demography isn’t destiny. Other southern states like North Carolina, Georgia and Texas have seen similar influxes of Democratic suburban voters and have been unable to turn those advantages into consistent statewide wins.

The last Senate election won by a Republican in Virginia was John Warner’s (no relation to Mark Warner) win in 2002. His election was so sure, Democrats did not even field a candidate against him. When that seat came up in 2008, John Warner retired, and the open seat was contested by two former governors: Jim Gilmore and Mark Warner. Mark Warner ran as his boring self and won 65 percent of the vote. After a surprisingly close election against Ed Gillespie in 2014, Warner will not face a serious Republican challenger this year and is assumed to win overwhelmingly again.

Kaine won his first election to the Senate in 2012, running against former governor and senator George Allen. Allen was defeated in 2006 by moderate Democrat Jim Webb, and Allen was running to retake his seat against the much more liberal Tim Kaine. Allen had been wrapped in controversy after controversy in 2006, which is likely what cost him his seat to begin with, and Virginia voters went with boring. They sent Tim Kaine to the Senate, which sent George Allen to the Reagan Ranch, the “farm upstate” for defeated Republicans. I hardly need to remind you of Kaine’s reelection in 2018 by thrashing Corey Stewart, the proud Southern boy from Minnesota.

A discussion of carpetbagging would be insufficient without mentioning Kaine and Warner, however. Kaine was also born in Minnesota, and he grew up in the Kansas City area. He graduated from the University of Missouri. Warner was born in Indiana and grew up in Illinois. He went to George Washington. Both have J.D.’s from Harvard Law. Neither of them have deep roots in Virginia, yet they’ve been able to win over Virginians’ trust by being good at their jobs.

Kaine was generally seen as being crucial to racial reconciliation in Richmond. That’s important for Richmond, but only of limited electoral utility statewide. Being Mark Warner’s lieutenant governor is what made him governor. Warner’s term in office from 2002 to 2006 was marked by such accomplishments as getting Virginia Tech into the ACC, working with a Republican senator to reform the tax code and saving Virginia’s AAA bond rating. Yawn if you want, but Warner left office with approval ratings over 70 percent.

Kaine’s time as governor was most remembered for his leadership after the Virginia Tech shooting. He was in Japan when the shooting took place, and immediately left and gave a speech that comforted victims’ families when he arrived in Blacksburg. He then visited victims in the hospital and won respect from people of all political beliefs.

Neither Kaine nor Warner are known for a sweeping package of legislation, but that doesn’t mean they’re centrist pushovers. If you’re a policy-oriented liberal, you can take comfort in knowing that they both have dismal lifetime ratings from the American Conservative Union (2.16 for Kaine and 7.59 for Warner) and Heritage Action (3 for Kaine and 5 for Warner). Both are highly regarded by Americans for Democratic Action (90 for both) and NARAL (100 for Kaine and 97 for Warner).

While Stacey Abrams, Andrew Gillum and Beto O’Rourke have had seats on cable news panels, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner have had seats in government. They’ve been able to do more for liberal politics than most progressive firebrands because they have found a way to be liberal Democrats in a place that wasn’t hospitable to liberal Democrats before they came along.

2020 will not be hospitable to liberal Democrats. Despite the president’s unpopularity, incumbent presidents have only lost three elections since 1912, and underestimating Donald Trump didn’t work out so well four years ago. So what’s the viable alternative?

It’s not a revolution. It’s not 57 varieties of plans on every policy point imaginable. It’s not a politician dictating what words people can and can’t say.

It’s someone you rarely have to think about after election day. Someone who can go on TV after a terrorist attack or a natural disaster and say completely normal things that comfort an ailing nation. Someone who can manage a complex federal bureaucracy and treat other officials with professionalism and respect.

Someone whose social media presence includes little more than making a tuna sandwich.

Joe Biden could be that guy. So far, he has been that guy. But once the campaign heats up again, if Democrats want to have a chance at regaining the White House and the Senate, he needs to remain that guy. More than anyone else, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine have turned this commonwealth (shot, last one) blue. Follow their lead if you want a chance to make the nation blue too.