U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said he learned a lesson about the politics of the immigration debate from an unlikely source this year: a Republican from South Dakota.
Kaine was one of the lead negotiators on a proposal to create a legal status for “Dreamers,” immigrants who were brought to this country as children and were protected under the Obama administration’s “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” program before President Donald Trump acted to wind it down last fall.
As the junior senator from Virginia worked with his colleagues across the aisle to strike a bargain, Kaine said he gained some interesting insight on the issue from U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D. While Rounds may be among the Senate’s more conservative members, he told Kaine that he’d be willing to support a deal on Dreamers for the simple reason that his rural state needs more people, not less.
“He kept saying, ‘We do not have the workforce,’” Kaine said in an interview after a campaign stop in Dumfries on April 6. “We always lead off talking about this issue by saying, ‘We’re a nation of immigrants, look at the Statue of Liberty.’ But we need to lead with that economic piece a bit more. Workforce is the key to a good economy. And immigration is the key to a good workforce.”
Kaine believes that even the most conservative Republican will eventually come around to such an economically focused argument on immigration, even after Trump has shown a staunch unwillingness to support any deal on Dreamers without hefty cuts to legal immigration as well. That’s why he holds out hope for the success of the repeatedly failed negotiations on the issue, and why he’s so enthusiastic about talking about immigration as he mounts his re-election campaign.
Kaine has spent the last week barnstorming around the state as he kicks off his bid for a second term in the Senate particularly focused on the economy. He convened a roundtable of business leaders at the El Paso restaurant just off Va. 234 in Dumfries to hear ideas from Prince William County’s business community, but also to proclaim that he believes he can “win the economic argument” over any one of the three Republicans vying to unseat him.
Whether he’s up against Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart, former lieutenant governor nominee E.W. Jackson or Del. Nick Freitas, R-30th District, Kaine has full confidence that he can successfully link the value of immigrants like the Dreamers to his broader vision for the future of Virginia’s economy.
“Dems sometimes make a mistake: We let Republicans do economic issues and we do others,” Kaine said. “But economic issues are the ones that are most important to the most people. I can look at any of my three potential opponents and say, there’s differences and similarities, but I can win the economic argument against any of them because I have experience in my community and also statewide trying to bring jobs to the hardest hit parts of the state.”
All three contenders in the June 12 primary have said previously that they plan to win by offering their full-throated support of Trump, and the massive tax cut congressional Republicans passed late last year. Though the benefits of the legislation were largely tilted toward corporations and the wealthy, the GOP remains confident that the tax cut will effectively neutralize any argument Kaine can make on the economy.
“Kaine voted against tax cuts and for shutting down the government,” Garren Shipley, the Republican National Committee’s Virginia spokesman, wrote in an email, referring to the brief government shutdown stemming from the standoff over Dreamers in January. “Virginia voters have every right to be skeptical of Kaine — whether he’s talking about economic growth or running an ‘inclusive’ campaign.”
But Kaine says he isn’t concerned in the least about running against the tax bill, considering that he believes the average voter will see only a nominal change in their paychecks from the legislation.
“When you give a steep permanent tax cut to big companies and a modest temporary tax cut to individuals, you’re showing your priorities are wrong,” Kaine said. “We didn’t direct it toward regular folks at all. Let them make their argument, I’ll make my argument.”
Kaine instead hopes to avoid what he saw as a mistake he made while running for vice president alongside Hillary Clinton in 2016 — listing off a “laundry list” of economic policies, instead of making a clear, simple economic pitch. His message is a Virginia that “works for all,” or “para todos” as he reminded attendees Friday in his fluent Spanish.
That means championing immigration and connecting it to how immigrants can build a robust workforce, but also another issue that hasn’t gotten much attention in Congress: infrastructure. Kaine says Trump’s plan to spur $1 trillion in infrastructure spending largely on the back of incentives for private companies “landed with a thud” in Congress, and he’d much rather see the federal government open up its wallet for major road projects, even referencing the problems commuters face on Va. 28 through western Prince William — that earned a cheer from Del. Danica Roem, D-13th District, who made the issue central to her campaign last year.
“Infrastructure investments are a lot better way to compete and win in the global economy than starting a trade war,” Kaine said, blasting the Trump’s efforts to put billions of dollars in tariffs on foreign goods.
But beyond any technical policy argument, Kaine believes the election will come down to Virginians’ distaste for Trump’s “instinct to divide,” on immigration issues in particular.
He was particularly frustrated by Trump’s remarks criticizing Dreamers on Easter Sunday, and he expects that to motivate voters come Nov. 6.
“Mr. President, you may be through with Dreamers, but I can assure you, the Dreamers and the people who care about them are not through with you,” Kaine said.