Democratic National Committee chairman Tim Kaine told a college class he’s likely to run for a Senate seat next year, a party spokesman said Monday.
The comment- to an undergraduate leadership course taught through the University of Richmond- is the most definitive statement yet from the former Virginia governor about the upcoming race for the seat of retiring Sen. Jim Webb, which Democrats are seeking to hold in next year’s elections.
The former governor’s offhand reply to a student’s question about his plans rocked Virginia politics and surprised national Democratic operatives and Kaine’s closest advisers.
DNC spokesman Brad Woodhouse provided first official word of Kaine’s remarks in a terse, unpunctuated announcement posted on Twitter around 1:30 p.m. Kaine “did not tell law school class he was running, said likely which has been reported. No final decision pending other commitments,” Woodhouse tweeted.
Woodhouse followed moments later with an official statement that Kaine would consult further with President Barack Obama, who appointed him head of the national party. It also said Kaine would honor his DNC travel and fundraising commitments “at least through the end of the month.”
Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta, said Kaine got off to a stumbling start should he run.
“It suggests a campaign that doesn’t know what it’s doing,” said Black, adding it also disappoints potential donors.
It even caught some longtime aides and confidantes unaware, forcing the DNC to scramble on the issue. The party insisted that Kaine had said nothing new.
Word from Kaine’s class spread quickly after a student phoned a news-talk radio station, WINA in Charlottesville. The station’s report, pegged only to a caller identified as Greg, raced across Facebook, Twitter and other social media.
Dismayed DNC officials promptly began damage control. Requests through the party to speak to Kaine were denied.
“Governor Kaine told his law school class today what is already widely known which is that he is increasingly likely to run,” DNC’s statement said initially.
Kaine had told a Democratic gathering in Roanoke that he was considering a possible run, and pundits had been speculating that it appeared increasingly likely Kaine would enter the race. But Kaine had not publicly characterized the likelihood of a candidacy until Monday.
Virginia’s race will be among the nation’s most intensely watched.
Democrats hold a slim Senate majority, and keeping both of Virginia’s seats in Democratic hands is vital to the party if it is to retain control of the Senate beyond 2012. Kaine, who was governor from 2006 to 2010, is the only Democrat available in Virginia with an established statewide political base, and other candidates are awaiting his decision before deciding whether to run.
It’s also important for Obama’s re-election prospects to have a powerful Democrat on the ticket in the Senate race, said former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the nation’s first elected black governor.
“The Virginia Senate race is an election the White House has to have. Obama has to have Virginia if he is going to win,” Wilder noted.
It’s also a race that could pit two former governors against each other. Republican George Allen, who lost the Senate seat to Webb in 2006 and was governor from 1994 to 1998, announced his candidacy earlier this year. He faces opposition for the nomination from tea party activist Jamie Radtke.
Allen was a strong 2008 presidential contender until a series of blunders derailed his Senate race and Webb won by just 9,000 votes.