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Virginia Races

Senate Outlook for 2008

Can Democrats Take Advantage of the Turf?

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Virginia (Open Seat)

Outlook: Solid Democratic


October 4, 2008 Update:

This race is getting ugly, and by that we do not mean ‘rough,’ ‘hard fought,’ or ‘close.’ Former Democratic Gov. Mark Warner has a 20-point lead in EVERY poll since early May over his statehouse predecessor, Republican Jim Gilmore. Pick your poison in terms of proof: both Senatorial Campaign Committees have left the state for dead, the Gilmore name is actually being shied away from by the McCain campaign as it attempts to hold on to the state’s 13 electoral votes, and Warner is more or less on autopilot as he breezes across the state in what could be referred to as ‘an early victory lap.’ The writing is on the wall: Warner is primed for a huge landslide victory, and nothing less than an apocalyptic event will stop the Old Dominion from having two Democratic senators and a Democratic governor-at least until next year (stay tuned, down-trodden Virginia Republicans).

June 18, 2008 Update:

The Old Dominion hasn’t moved nearly as far as New Hampshire across the political spectrum, but it has undeniably become more Democratic in recent years, primarily because of the growth of moderate Northern Virginia. The GOP has lost races for Governor in 2001 and 2005, U.S. Senator in 2006, and the state Senate in 2007.

The man who started the movement to the Democrats, former Governor Mark Warner, is very likely headed to the Senate in 2008. He may or may not be handicapped by the Democratic presidential nominee, but he has such wide appeal among independents that he should be able to make up any lost ground, and it is far from impossible that Barack Obama (unlike Hillary Clinton) could carry Virginia.

On May 31st, Republicans nominated Warner’s controversial predecessor, former Governor Jim Gilmore, who is having trouble funding his candidacy. Gilmore’s already severe problems were compounded by what happened at the convention. He barely squeaked by a far-right, gadfly state legislator, state delegate Bob Marshall, a staunch abortion opponent, with a mere 50.3% of the votes case. Even more shocking was the convention’s ouster of incumbent chairman and former Lt. Gov. John Hager as party chair. Hager, whose son Henry recently married the President’s daughter, Jenna, lost decisively to yet another far-right 32-year old state legislator, Jeff Frederick.

The Virginia GOP has moved even further right at a time when the state as a whole has dramatically moderated, making the Republican party’s brand unpalatable to the key swing moderates and independents who determine the results of general elections, not to mention the band of Virginians who fund the candidates. All this is great news for the Democrats. Should Mark Warner succeed the retiring John Warner (R), as is highly likely, Democrats will control the Governorship and both Senate seats for the first time since January 1970. Virginia’s years as a Republican stronghold are well over.

April 14, 2008 Update:

It appears the Republicans may have a nomination fight on their hands in Virginia after all. Most of us thought they had dodged that bullet when Congressman Tom Davis announced he would withdraw from the race, leaving former governor Jim Gilmore as the last man standing. However, state delegate Bob Marshall has emerged as a right-wing alternative to Gilmore for anti-tax and anti-abortion elements of the party. Gilmore should win the nomination, since the decision will be made via state convention instead of a primary and state party leaders see Gilmore as the stronger general election candidate, but perhaps not as easily as he would have without Marshall drawing away some of his resources.

And resources could be the difference-maker in this race. Democratic candidate and former governor Mark Warner has been able to raise money at what has to be described as simply a ridiculous pace. In the first two weeks after announcing his candidacy, Warner raised a million dollars. Fourth quarter of 2007 and first quarter of 2008? $2.7 million and $2.5 million, respectively.

Warner’s wild popularity as governor seems to be carrying through to his Senate campaign, as he’s routinely polling 15 points or more ahead of Gilmore, and his appeal to independents should help him brush off any negative effect the Democratic presidential nominee may have. But this is Virginia, where crazier things have been known to happen. Remember 2006? Republican incumbent George Allen was sitting on a 20 point lead in March and April; then came the summer of ”macaca,” and the swift evaporation of Allen’s reelection bid. How about 1989, when polls showed Doug Wilder with double-digit leads heading into election day, only for him to win by a mere 0.3 percent? Now of course the cases are different, since ”racial leakage” won’t come into play in polls regarding Warner, but polls are a fickle beast, and can change rapidly. With the intensity of these two political juggernauts, Virginia should be at the forefront of the battle for the Senate in 2008.

December 14, 2007 Update:

The Old Dominion hasn’t moved nearly as far as New Hampshire across the political spectrum, but it has undeniably become more Democratic in recent years, primarily because of the growth of moderate Northern Virginia. The GOP has lost races for Governor in 2001 and 2005, U.S. Senator in 2006, and the state legislature in 2007. The man who started the movement to the Democrats, former Governor Mark Warner, is very likely headed to the Senate in 2008. He may be handicapped by the Democratic presidential nominee, especially Hillary Clinton, but he has such wide appeal among independents that he should be able to make up any ground she costs him (if she is the nominee). The Republicans will nominate Warner’s controversial predecessor, former Governor Jim Gilmore, who may have trouble funding the contest. Should Mark Warner succeed the retiring John Warner (R), Democrats will control the Governorship and both Senate seats for the first time since early 1970.

November 26, 2007 Update:

Boy what a difference a month makes. Just a few weeks ago, all signs pointed to Tom Davis, Representative from the Virginia 11th, and former Governor Jim Gilmore gearing up to square off for the Republican nomination. Since then, the state party announced it would pick its nominee at a convention, which gave Davis enough concern that he backed out entirely. Gilmore has officially announced his candidacy, and it doesn’t appear he’ll face any significant competition (if any at all) for the Republican nod.

So where does that leave things in the Old Dominion? Gilmore’s successor in the governor’s mansion, Democrat Mark Warner, enjoys a substantial lead in the polls (at least 15 points in all polls, in some as much as 30), as well as in funds (Warner raised over a million dollars in only two weeks after his announcement). Republicans insist that this time, Warner has a record they can run against, and that the early deficit Gilmore faces can be overcome when they hit full stride. One unfortunate certainty is that this race will get nasty. Warner has accused Gilmore of hiding the true economic plight of the Commonwealth when he handed the reins over in 2002; Gilmore has fired back that Warner broke campaign promises by raising taxes during his four years in Richmond. Considering the stakes (a Warner victory would give Virginia two Democratic Senators for the first time since 1970), both candidates will fight tooth and nail for this seat. We’re still a year from election day, but it looks like
Gilmore will need to come up with a little bit of campaign magic in order to overtake Warner, and keep this seat in Republican control.


Background

Virginians will bid farewell to a good and faithful public servant when Senator John Warner retires at the end of his current term. Warner’s retirement will signal the end of a 30-year career of serving in the United States Senate, decades during which he often served as a voice for moderation.

Potential candidates have fully embraced the message Warner expressed in his retirement speech, of yielding his ground so that others can advance. Former Governor Mark Warner has officially thrown his hat into the ring, and appears to be the front-runner for the seat. M. Warner (of no relation to the outgoing John) was wildly popular during his four years in the Governor’s Mansion, implementing business and tax policies that helped to restore balance to the state’s budget while working reasonably well with a heavily Republican legislature. M. Warner actually ran against J. Warner in the famous Warner vs. Warner Senate race of 1996, when John beat Mark by a closer than expected five percentage points. M. Warner also had a brief fling at the Democratic nomination for the Presidency after he left the governorship in early 2006, but he withdrew, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family. Given his broad base of support and his immense personal wealth, Mark Warner begins the Senate race as a clear, substantial frontrunner.

Virginia Republicans say they’re up to the challenge, though. Congressman Tom Davis, of the 11th District in Northern Virginia, seems the standard-bearer for moderate Republicans, while M. Warner’s gubernatorial predecessor Jim Gilmore is the favorite of some of Virginia’s more conservative, anti-tax Republican voters. Davis comes from the wealthiest congressional district in the country, and has a knack for getting the most from his supporters’ deep pockets. Congressman Eric Cantor of the 7th District has also been mentioned as a possible GOP candidate, as has Bob Goodlatte of the 6th Congressional District, but they do not appear to be running. A Davis-Gilmore match-up would be competitive in either a primary or a convention; the GOP state central committee will decide the nominating method this autumn.

M. Warner should benefit from the brewing Republican brouhaha. The Republican candidates put themselves at a disadvantage if Davis and Gilmore have to spend time, resources, and rhetoric beating each other up simply to capture the Republican nomination, while Warner sits by with no substantial (if any) Democratic challengers. At the starting gate, Virginia appears likely to give the Democrats another Senate seat, and also save the taxpayers a little money since the office doorways and all the printed materials with the Senate voting roster can remain Warner embossed. A 14-month campaign is a long ordeal with plenty of potential for slip-ups (ask ex-Sen. George Macaca Allen), plus the peril of an unpopular Democratic presidential nominee such as Hillary Clinton making the contest closer than expected. But should Warner triumph, the ex-Red State of Virginia will have a very Blue team at the top, the first time Democrats will have controlled both U.S. Senate seats and the governorship since early January of 1970.

Candidates

Mark Warner – Democrat – former Governor
Website

Jim Gilmore – Republican – former Governor
Website