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Politics

I had the chance to speak briefly, by telephone, with Virginia Governor and Democratic National Committee chair Tim Kaine today following his rollout earlier this afternoon of elements of the DNC’s midterm strategy at a lunch sponsored by the Cristian Science Monitor. Highlights of the interview follow below.

On the Democratic narrative:
The Democrats’ message will be heavily tailored around the theme of Republican obstructionism. “We’re going to draw a very sharp contrast,” he told me. “Democrats are the results people, and Republicans are the obstruction people. We have a President and a Congress willing to do the heavy lifting on big-picture issues like health reform, insurance reform, student loan reform and now Wall Street reform.”

“Republicans have adopted a strategy from day one of obstruction,” he continued. “It’s not a strategy that people are going to embrace at a time of national emergency.”

On the Democratic ground game:
The DNC believes that the databases and voter contact lists that the Obama campaign built up during 2008 will prove to be a significant asset to the party, particularly as it gives them access to the 15 million people who voted for the first time in 2008. “Fifty percent of them are young or minority voters,” Kaine said. “We know that their normal turnout rate in the midterm electons is low. But if we can increase the turnout by 10 percent over what the baseline would be, we can influence a number of elections especially in states or Congressional Districts that are going to be close. We know who they are, we know where they live, we know the precinct they vote in.”

Between the lines, the message was that the DNC continues to see Barack Obama, who motivated many of these first-time voters and whose approval ratings are relatively more favorable than those of the Congress, as its biggest political asset.

Kaine also mentioned the party has already begun working on its voter protection strategies, something which it usually might not do until August or September. This was brought up in the context of a discussion on voter turnout and registration. Although Kaine neither said nor hinted as much, it may be that the DNC sees a focus on voter protection as part of its marketing strategy, something which polls have generally shown is more of a concern to minorities and first-time voters.

On expectations:
Kaine set the bar pretty low. “In the midterms on average, the President loses 28 house seats and four Senate seats, Kaine told me. “That has been the average since 1900.” (Kaine’s facts are in order, although the average loss since World War II is somewhat milder.) When I asked for specific upside and downside predictions, Kaine demurred. “We want to hang on to strong majorities in both houses for the President.”

On what’s behind Republican enthusiasm:
“I think their backs are against the wall. When you lose big races and you lose a lot of them in a row, that does tend to energize folks. The Republican Party is shrinking — narrower demographically, ideologically and geographically — but there’s energy in that core and we have to take that seriously.”

On the media environment, and especially FOX News:
“It complicates things,” Kaine told me of the “incredible amount of flak and debris in the air”. He cited foot soldiers, such as those employed by the Obama campaign, as the antidote. “What we’re trying to do here to going back to pre-radio days where politics is really person to person.”

On the utility (or lack thereof) of intraparty primaries:
“In general I don’t think primaries hurt the Democratic party too badly,” he told me. “For a while we were lucky if we could get one person to run as a Democrat. Only once you saw that Democrats could win did you begin to see multiple candidates”. Kaine also touted the Democrats’ ability to have come back together after tough nomination battles as an asset, and contrasted it against Republican nomination battles in NY-23, Florida, and Texas.

On the utility (or lack thereof) of Republican intraparty primaries:
“Back in 2007 when I was governor of Virgina, we wanted to take our state senate back. I told all our folks that we had a one-in-three chance of doing it but lets go for it. The way we did it was not exactly the way we planned; GOP conservative senators knocked off moderate challenges. We are watching these Republican primaries like Arizona for one of those opportunities.”

On how to sell the recovery:
Expect to see a lot of these charts.

FiveThirtyEight is pleased to publish newsworthy interviews with politicians, strategists, and policymakers of all parties. We thank Governor Kaine for his time.

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