National Commentary

Tim Kaine’s Very Big Ovation

The biggest news at the annual banquet of Equality Virginia in the Virginia state capital of Richmond last Saturday was the rousing, cheering ovation given by the 1,000-plus attendees for former Governor and now Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Tim Kaine when he was invited by the podium to stand up at his table and wave.

Equality Virginia has always been a judiciously non-partisan advocacy group on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered rights. At this year’s banquet, this author was being honored as one of five recipients of the group’s annual “OUTstanding Virginian” awards. Gov. Kaine graciously accepted my invitation to join my two tables of friends and colleagues who were there to celebrate the award with me. Retired State Senator Mary Margaret Whipple and Delegate Jim Scott were also among them.

In the past, some of my Democratic activist friends have been critical of Equality Virginia for being so non-partisan. After all, some moderate Republicans like former U.S. Rep. Tom Davis attended their banquets, and there is a group of pro-gay rights Republicans known as “Log Cabin Republicans,” and an even more aggressive group of such types based in New York known as “GOPac,” which has gone so far as to invite Ann Coulter to speak at events.

But the explosive ovation given to Gov. Kaine this last weekend signals that something big is happening within Equality Virginia that reflects a wider sentiment in Virginia and nationally.

When the name of Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli was evoked at the podium, a big chorus of “boo’s” echoed through the hall. One speaker said he wanted to say Cuccinelli’s name one more time just to hear the reaction. He did, and he got it again. Cuccinelli is a far-right GOP leader who plans to run for Governor of Virginia in 2013, and his name is synonymous with where the public is now believing the GOP as a whole has gone.

The last year in politics, both in the context of the Republican presidential primaries and in extremist anti-woman legislation passed in Virginia and signed by Gov. Bob McDonnell, has dramatically shifted the political equation. Those who’d begun toying with the idea that the fight for equality was maybe compatible with Republican policies have experienced a rude awakening.

Gay Republicans have been abruptly denied access at the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) annual meetings in Washington, D.C. But it’s more than that. It’s the relentless pressure from the extreme right in the GOP on otherwise more moderate Republicans on questions of reproductive and gay rights that is causing a seismic shift of enormous proportions.

Granted, efforts toward equality coming from Democratic leaders, including the president, have also contributed. But to many activists, those efforts seem always to fall somewhat short.

No, the reality is what Gov. Kaine pointed out to me when I called attention to the great ovation he received from over 1,000 last Saturday night. He said, “Look around. Isn’t it a shame? There isn’t a single Republican elected official here.”

Recalling Republicans, like Rep. Davis, and others who’d actually received formal commendations from Equality Virginia in the past, I of course had to agree. The right wing had driven all the GOP moderates away from the fight for equality.

This development bodes well for Kaine and Obama in the key swing state of Virginia this year. Gov. McDonnell, once considered on the vice-presidential short list of presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney, has been discretely dropped from the list because he signed into law earlier this year a bill requiring women seeking an abortion to take an invasive ultra sound test first, a test not covered by insurance.

Virginia, which had elected five consecutive Democrats to statewide office since 2000 – Gov. Mark Warner in 2000, Gov. Kaine in 2004, Sen. Jim Webb in 2006, and President Obama and Sen. Warner in 2008 – had begun tilting sharply to the right, the GOP winning the governor’s mansion in 2009, gaining three Congressional seats in 2010 and taking control of both houses of the state legislature in 2011.

But the swing back is already well underway.