RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine’s name on the Democratic ticket can realistically nudge the pivotal state closer into Hillary Clinton’s column — no small feat in a contest of two presidential nominees that engender strong feelings by themselves.
Kaine’s rise through Richmond city politics and tenure in state government gives the party disproportionate pull, specifically in the politically dynamic capital city metro area.
And while Clinton’s aides try to downplay his potential impact on the must-win state, strategists in both parties say Kaine can put Virginia out of Republican Donald Trump’s reach in the race for 270 Electoral College votes.
“Tim Kaine is an example of putting someone on the ticket that will impact their home state,” Virginia Republican strategist Chris Jankowski said. “Putting him on the ticket turns Virginia from a true, toss-up state to one that leans Democratic.”
The vice presidential nomination hasn’t made the difference in the election outcome in decades. But Virginia has become one of the most competitive states over the past four elections after 30 years as reliably Republican.
In Virginia, Clinton leads Trump in polls of likely voters, more narrowly than in polls that also ask about Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein. But Kaine provides the Democrats a familiar name and, to many, a familiar face with appeal in swing-voting and GOP-leaning regions.
Kaine’s support for some abortion restrictions gave him the reputation as a moderate, which helped him outperform President Barack Obama in their respective races in swing-voting suburbs of northern Virginia in 2012. At the same time, leaders in both parties say Kaine’s pursuit of gun restrictions after the April 2007 killings at Virginia Tech University helps him with the state’s growing number of suburban parents.
Kaine signed an executive order requiring those involuntarily committed to mental health institutions be reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, action President George W. Bush required of all states later that year.
But Kaine’s biggest potential benefit to the ticket is in central Virginia, in the counties surrounding his longtime home in Richmond.
Kaine has been a fixture in a metro area that accounts for 10 percent of Virginia’s voting population, including heavily Democratic Richmond. He’s lived in the same north Richmond neighborhood for more than 20 years, attends the same downtown church and is a regular for breakfast at City Diner just west of downtown.
“He’s a regular guy. He lives in a regular neighborhood and relates to regular people,” Sandra Hansboro, a Democrat from nearby Midlothian, said.
His regular guy image quickly picked up steam after his speech at last week’s Democratic National Convention, when Twitter jokes depicting Kaine as an average American dad quickly went viral.
But it’s this doughnut around Richmond —- politically and culturally diverse Henrico County to the north, east and west, and whiter, GOP-leaning Chesterfield, to the south and west — where Kaine’s potential impact on the presidential ticket can really be seen.
These renovated urban, neatly trimmed suburban and developing rural tracts of the Old South are now a cross section of emerging Virginia where Kaine’s non-ideological approach has shadowed the state’s Democratic migration.
“It’s a microcosm of the state. And it’s gone from a light shade of red, to a light shade of blue.” State Sen. Don McEachin said, characterizing the Richmond suburbs in color-coded partisan terms.
George W. Bush carried Virginia twice by less than 10 percentage points, while Obama has also carried it twice, though by smaller margins.
The proof of Kaine’s help to Clinton will be in how he can narrow the Republican advantage in Chesterfield County, similar in population size to Henrico, but less urban and with a more Republican hue.
Golf courses, higher-end suburbs and retail developments now mark Chesterfield County, a landscape once known for the coal and tobacco it shipped out of the confluence of the James and Appomattox rivers.
Although Kaine has never carried the county, he has dramatically outperformed most Democrats. In 2012, he received 3,500 more votes there than Obama did. And he trimmed the GOP edge to a few percentage points in 2005 and 2012 in a county George W. Bush won twice by nearly two-to-one.
“Chesterfield is the county to watch,” said former longtime Republican state Sen. John Watkins. “If Kaine can help shave Trump’s margin to less than 10 percentage points, Clinton will win Virginia.”
Trump has said his appeal to white, working-class voters can put long-held Democratic states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania into contention this fall. But he also needs to win back territory gained by Democrats in recent elections, such as Virginia and North Carolina.
“There’s no question Virginia will be motivated in a way they otherwise wouldn’t be,” Virginia Republican Party Chairman John Whitbeck said. “Tim Kaine will motivate Virginia Democrats more than Hillary Clinton would.”
Even a small uptick in voter turnout, which Clinton’s campaign aides say Kaine can provide, could make the difference in a close election, according to strategists on either side of the partisan divide.
If Kaine can spur turnout in metropolitan Richmond, “we could add a point or two,” said Clinton’s Virginia director, Brian Zuzenak.
Kaine accepted the Democratic vice presidential nomination Tuesday at the party’s national convention in Philadelphia. He is scheduled to headline a homecoming rally in Richmond Monday.
“He’s a benefit to us on the ticket,” Zuzenak said. “In a battleground state like Virginia, it’s all about the margins.”
Alan Suderman contributed to this report.