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Obama taps Virginia's Gov. Tim Kaine as part-time DNC chair

January 5, 2009 | 12:12 am

President-elect Barack Obama with his reported new choice to head the Democratic National Committee Virginia Governor Tim Kaine

Back in 2001, President-elect George W. Bush named Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore as part-time chairman of the Republican National Committee. Richmond was close to the party's Capitol Hill headquarters and, as a governor himself, Bush liked to put chief executives in chief executive positions.

Plus the fact, to be honest, the chairman of the party holding the White House has less to do because so much of the political direction and operations is handed down to the party functionaries from the big house, from close presidential associates and political strategists such as Karl Rove and, soon, David Axelrod.

However, within a year Bush fired Gilmore, although publicly it was described as a Gilmore resignation. The reason: The Virginia governor's job -- any governor's job -- is simply too demanding and time-consuming to allow a second job as demanding as being the public face of a national political party. Gilmore simply wasn't doing sufficient party work.

Now, just two weeks before his inauguration, comes word from Democratic sources that President-elect Barack Obama later this week will name Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine as part-time chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

The appointment will reportedly come with the understanding that next year, when Kaine loses his governor's job due to the state's one-term limit, facing unemployment, he will become the full-time face of the DNC, which has a dual responsibility of frequent partisan attack dog in the media and prolific national party fundraiser.

In an intriguing weekend twist, former DNC chair Terry McAuliffe announced Saturday that he....

... will turn his prolific fundraising prowess (there are no limits to individual giving in Virginia) into his own campaign to replace Kaine and keep the Commonwealth Democratic.

With the departure of Bush, the Republicans will also pick a new chair this month. Several candidates are vying for the top spot including Sal Anuzis, the Michigan state chair; Katon Dawson, the South Carolina state chair; Ken Blackwell, former Ohio secretary of state, an African American favored by conservatives; another African American, Michael Steele, former Maryland lieutenant governor, who stresses the need to broaden the party's reach; plus current chair Mike Duncan, who must overcome major election defeats in both 2006 and 2008. (UPDATE: A loyal Ticket reader points out, correctly, that Duncan did not take over until after the 2006 election.)

Chip Saltsman, the magic Tennessean who ran Mike Huckabee's unsuccessful GOP presidential campaign last year, is still running despite a major gaffe distributing a satirical CD that made fun of Obama as the "magic Negro." He'd already raised some concerns among party faithful since Huckabee is a likely 2012 contender for the party's presidential nomination and has made calls in support of Saltsman in recent weeks.

National GOP committee members will hold preliminary consultations this week to discuss the situation in advance of their regular meeting at month's end.

In recent times there have been numerous part-time national party chairs, often in short terms, such as ex-RNC chair Florida Sen. Mel Martinez. Former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot succeeded Gilmore and went on to successfully chair Bush's 2004 campaign.

The few full-time chVirginia Democratic Governor Tim Kaineairs like McAuliffe and the outgoing Howard Dean, another former governor, work hard at fundraising. One former RNC chair named George H.W. Bush even turned that job into the vice presidency with Ronald Reagan, and ultimately the Big Job.

Kaine, you may remember from last summer when most everyone knew he'd be Obama's VP pick, is a St. Paul native and another of those Ivy League guys that Obama favors. The 50-year-old father of three graduated from Harvard Law School, like Obama, Michelle Obama and Kaine's wife, Anne. Both Kaine's and Obama's mother were native Kansans.

While Obama spent formative years in Indonesia and then as a community organizer on Chicago's South Side, Kaine, a Roman Catholic, spent a year with Jesuit priests in Honduras, becoming fluent in Spanish.

Although an opponent of capital punishment, Kaine has presided over eight executions as governor. He has no great gubernatorial achievements to tout after three years in office. But his 2006 election and 56% approval rating showed he can attract Republican votes in the once-staunchly-GOP, now drifting-Democratic Commonwealth. Not insignificantly, Kaine endorsed Obama within days of his campaign announcement in February 2007.

Perhaps indicating where Obama intends to stress political development, Kaine also gives the Democratic Party a Southerner as chair.

The new party assignment will give Kaine Washington experience and national exposure, which he lacks, and would be valuable for any future political plans. Not to mention years befriending donors and building a national network of rich people.

But at least for the next year the chairmanship opens Kaine to attacks back home that he's putting patisanship ahead of the state's welfare, including serious budget problems.

But, hey, what can Virginia voters do about it? Un-elect him?

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photo credit: Steve Helber / Associated Press (top with Obama); Office of the Governor (bottom).

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