U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine and Terry McAuliffe are both part of the small club of Virginia’s living Democratic ex-governors and two of the most influential figures in state politics.

While governor, McAuliffe appointed Anne Holton, Kaine’s wife, as his secretary of education.

Kaine has also encouraged state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, whose wedding he officiated, to run for higher office one day.

That day has arrived. 

But so far, Kaine’s staying out of what’s expected to be a contentious Democratic race for the 2021 gubernatorial nomination that will likely pit McClellan and McAuliffe against each other in a field that will also include Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D- Prince William.

“We are lucky in Virginia to have a qualified, diverse field of Democratic candidates running for governor who can do the job on day one,” Kaine said in a statement to the Mercury.

McClellan has made it no secret that she considers Kaine a political mentor and close friend. Just before the 2016 election with Kaine on the Democratic ticket for vice president, McClellan wrote a lengthy online post describing how he had pushed her to make the jump from young Democratic organizer to candidate for office.

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, on the Senate floor. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Kaine has often praised McClellan, who like him came up through the world of Richmond politics, as an ascendant Democratic star. But it remains to be seen whether that relationship might translate to an endorsement for her rather than McAuliffe, who is expected to formally enter the race soon, bringing a bigger profile and legendary fundraising abilities.

McClellan’s campaign has spotlighted the Kaine association, rolling out endorsements from five Kaine administration alums willing to vouch for her policy chops and legislative relationships that they say will translate well to the Executive Branch.

That list includes new endorsements from Viola Baskerville, a former Richmond-area state delegate who served as Kaine’s secretary of administration, and Patrick Gottschalk, who was Kaine’s secretary of commerce.

In an interview, Baskerville said she’s backing McClellan partly because she wants to see a Black woman ascend to the top of the state policymaking world and signal Virginia is ready for the “next generation” of leadership.

“She’s developed over 15 years a deep well of institutional memory and relationships with legislators,” said Baskerville, who encouraged McClellan to run for her Richmond House seat when she vacated in 2005 to become the first Black woman to seek the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor.

McClellan has also been endorsed by Aneesh Chopra, who served as Kaine’s secretary of technology, who said he saw she was committed to “making government smarter.”

Other McClellan backers who served under Kaine are Sindy Benevides, a former director of gubernatorial appointments, and Douglas Garcia, a former assistant secretary of education.

Bob Holsworth, a veteran Virginia political commentator, said an endorsement from a popular, high-profile Democrat like Kaine could give McClellan a boost as she seeks to raise money and introduce herself to rank-and-file voters beyond the confines of her home turf in Richmond. 

Kaine also has a history of lining up early behind candidates he particularly likes, Holsworth said, pointing to his early endorsement of former President Barack Obama in 2007 when it appeared Hillary Clinton was the Democratic front-runner. 

Like Obama’s presidential campaign, McClellan’s candidacy carries a history-making component in a state that has never elected a woman of any race as governor. That may be something Kaine would want to be part of and “take pride in,” Holsworth said.

“But there may be some trepidation,” Holsworth said, particularly in a four-way Democratic primary involving a popular ex-governor, a sitting lieutenant governor and Carroll Foy, running as a more progressive newcomer who, like McClellan, would also make history as the first Black woman elected governor of any state.

Had Kaine been elected vice president, it would’ve fallen to McAuliffe to pick his replacement in the U.S. Senate. At the time, many Democrats thought McClellan would be a strong contender for the job.

Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (Scott Elmquist/Style Weekly)

McAuliffe is expected to be a formidable candidate, enjoying name recognition and a statewide track record that may be difficult for his opponents to match, particularly if non-McAuliffe voters split among the other three or more candidates.

Welcoming McAuliffe to the ex-governors’ club in 2018, Kaine said in a tweet McAuliffe had “enriched our commonwealth and we look forward to your service for years to come!”

McClellan and Carroll Foy both announced their campaigns in the early summer, giving them slight head start even though the field is far from settled. Fairfax, trying to move past sexual assault allegations that emerged in 2019 and which he adamantly denies, announced in September.

U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., has also not endorsed in the gubernatorial race.