Sen. Tim Kaine seems to pop up on every shortlist of potential running mates for Hillary Clinton, but with the increased attention comes increased scrutiny into the Democratic Virginian’s record.
Kaine is known as moderate, drama-free politician. But beyond his style, which the senator himself described as “boring,” are questions about the impact he could have on the Democratic ticket. These questions have had little impact on Kaine’s political career to this point, but they demonstrate the nit-picky process of picking the person who might end up a heartbeat away from the Oval Office.
In the wake of the Supreme Court decision to vacate the federal corruption conviction of Kaine’s successor, former Gov. Bob McDonnell, reporters have taken a fresh look at the gifts that Kaine received during his time in the governor’s mansion.
McDonnell was convicted of using his influence as governor to help the business prospects of his friend Jonnie Williams. Williams was attempting to advance a dietary supplement created from tobacco. In 2014, Virginians were captivated as the salacious details of McDonnnell and his wife Maureen’s relationship with the businessman were parsed out during a month-long trial in federal court.
McDonnell received nearly $150,000 dollars in gifts and loans from Williams, including ball gowns, a Rolex watch and the use of Williams’s vacation home. He was convicted on corruption charges, but the Supreme Court ruled that the instructions given to the jury were too broad and vacated the ruling. McDonnell could be tried again for the same crime.
But McDonnell is not the only Virginia governor to receive gifts from wealthy donors or friends during his time in office. Kaine also benefited from Virginia’s loose laws related to political gift giving. Up until recently, there was no law in Virginia that prohibited giving politicians gifts of any size as long as those gifts are publicly reported.
According to Virginia’s Public Access Project, a non-partisan group that tracks campaign finance in the commonwealth, Kaine received more than $160,000 in gifts from various sources. Among the gifts was the use of James B. Murray Jr.’s vacation home in the Caribbean valued at $18,000. Murray is a former business partner of Kaine’s Senate colleague Mark Warner. He offered up the house after Kaine won his gubernatorial race in 2005.
The big difference between Kaine and McDonnell is there no accusation that Kaine helped any of his gift givers through his official capacity as governor. Kaine also meticulously reported anything that could be considered a gift, including political travel, something McDonnell failed to do.
“During his eight years as Lieutenant Governor and Governor, Senator Kaine went beyond the requirements of Virginia law, even publicly disclosing gifts of value beneath the reporting threshold,” said Amy Dudley, Kaine’s Director of Communications. “He’s confident that he met both the letter and the spirit of Virginia’s ethical standards.”
That is not stopping Republicans from reminding voters that Kaine too accepted expensive gifts during his time as a public servant.
“Putting Tim Kaine on the ticket would be a real problem for Hillary Clinton in Virginia,” said John Whitbeck, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia. “Kaine has his own gift problems, and Virginians have made it very clear they have no appetite for even the appearance of corruption.”
Former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, a Democrat but someone who in the past has been critical of Kaine, argued that Kaine has never even been accused of tipping the scales in someone’s favor.
“I have read of nothing and know of nothing that would be problematic in that regard,” Wilder said.
Wilder was opposed to President Barack Obama’s decision to tap Kaine as Democratic National Committee Chairman in 2009. But he feels much differently about Kaine as a potential running mate for Clinton.
“I did not think he would make a good party chairman and I was right,” he said. “But I think he would be a good choice (as vice president). I think he has a personality that lends itself to working with the other side.”
Wilder believes that Kaine’s past is well known and not an impediment to his potential as national candidate. He is convinced the key factor in Clinton’s decision will depend on how much strategic value she places on Virginia.
“Even though she is well positioned in Virginia, she shouldn’t take anything for granted,” Wilder said. “Because forces on the ground rather than polls numbers will determine the winner.”
Virginia Republicans, who supported McDonnell, argue the pain of the gifts scandal looms too large for Clinton to take the risk of tapping Kaine.
“Putting a Democrat Virginia governor on the ticket who took gifts while a Republican Virginia governor who took gifts is still fighting it out in court, is just a reminder that Clinton, Inc., plays by their own rules,” Whitbeck said. “Kaine on the ticket with Clinton just reinforces the image that they believe they are untouchable, and Virginians are tired of that.”
But Wilder believes Kaine’s undefeated track record statewide in Virginia is still valuable and he thinks the state is far more competitive than polls currently show. He said the Clinton team would be wise not to take the state for granted, especially after the 2013 victory of Clinton’s friend, Gov. Terry McAuliffe, turned out to be much closer than what was predicted.
“There were polls that showed McAuliffe would win by 12 points,” Wilder said. “It didn’t work out quite like that.”