WASHINGTON — At Tuesday night's vice presidential debate, Sen. Tim Kaine was asked about a time when he had to struggle to balance his faith and a public policy decision.
Hillary Clinton's running mate chose to detail his personal opposition to the death penalty — a point on which the two Democrats differ — and his decision to allow executions to proceed as governor of Virginia.
While the move might have seemed surprising to some, it was, in fact, almost a precise replay of the route he took in his campaign for governor more than a decade ago.
Tuesday's debate came a day after the Republican National Committee posted a video online highlighting Kaine's work defending death row inmates as a lawyer in private practice, as well as mentioning his decision to grant clemency to one death-row inmate while governor.
"Long before Tim Kaine was in office, he consistently protected the worst kind of people," the narrator says over ominous music before highlighting cases that Kaine worked on in private practice, the commutation he issued as governor, and a transfer he sought for a federal inmate. "America deserves better."
The online ad had more than 100,000 views on YouTube before Tuesday night's debate.
At the debate, Kaine did not ignore the issue, choosing to bring up his death penalty experience — and returning to a more-than-a-decade-old script.
"For me, the hardest struggle in my faith life was: The Catholic Church is against the death penalty and so am I. But I was the governor of a state, and the state law said that there was a death penalty for crimes if the jury determined them to be heinous. So, I had to grapple with that. When I was running for governor, I was attacked pretty strongly because of my position on the death penalty," Kaine said on Tuesday night.
It's true. When running for governor in 2005, as BuzzFeed News detailed over this past weekend, Kaine's opponent for the governorship, Jerry Kilgore had produced a series of ads taking a similar aim at Kaine's defense of death row inmates with the tag line, "We can't trust Tim Kaine."
By the time the ads ran in 2005, Kaine's campaign had already settled on a response and pre-packaged an ad where Kaine spoke directly into the camera, saying, "My faith teaches that life is sacred. That's why I personally oppose the death penalty. But I take my oath of office seriously, and I'll enforce the death penalty ... because it's the law."
On Tuesday night, Kaine, almost word-for-word, repeated that response — adding to it the fact that he did allow executions, 11 of them, to go forward as governor:
I looked the voters of Virginia in the eye, and said, 'Look, this is my religion. I am not going to change my religious practice to get one vote, but I know how to take an oath and uphold the law, and if you elect me, I will uphold the law.' And I was elected, and I did. It was very, very difficult to allow executions to go forward. But in circumstance where I didn't feel like there was a case for clemency, I told Virginia voters I would uphold the law and I did.
Kaine, of course, won his election in 2005. Kilgore's attack didn't work — with some analysts at the time suggesting that the ads even might have hurt him with some voters, especially those who saw them as an attack on Kaine's faith.
In a post-race memo, Kaine's pollsters for the campaign discussed what had happened:
Our polling showed after the death penalty exchange began Kaine’s lead initially dropped to 2 points. (We believe this was more because we had gotten off message to respond to the attack than because of the attack’s substance). By October 25, however, we were back on message and had a 5-point lead, which we maintained through election eve.
With Tuesday night's response, it appears Kaine, at the least, took from his 2005 experience that laying out a response that his personal opposition to the death penalty does not equate to an opposition to enforcing the death penalty is a safe political path that, at best, can even work in his favor.