Could McAuliffe’s success be Warner’s undoing?

December 26, 2013

Republican Ken Cuccinelli lost by the smallest gubernatorial election margin in Virginia in 24 years. Had he won, the GOP would have surely nominated a likeminded social activist with a take-no-prisoners attitude to be their 2014 Senate candidate. Democratic Sen. Mark Warner could then have coasted to a landslide re-election victory. But Cuccinelli squandered a double-digit springtime lead before losing to Terry McAuliffe in the fall squeaker.

The possible political irony: The first Democratic statewide sweep in a generation might morph into Warner’s worst political nightmare.

The story begins in 2009 with McAuliffe badly losing in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. His image cratered when attacked, unfairly at times, by then-delegate Brian Moran (now McAuliffe’s pick for secretary of public safety) as a carpetbagger who made his money wheeling and dealing national political influence.

But what proved unacceptable to partisan Democratic primary voters then didn’t overly bother key independent swing voters four years later. They supported the better-prepared McAuliffe in sufficient numbers to give him a four-year lease on the executive mansion starting Jan. 11.

What’s more remarkable about McAuliffe’s victory, though, is that he won despite having the kind of political resume that Virginia voters had historically found fatally unappealing.  This tells us Virginians may likewise be willing to elect someone with similar credentials to the Senate.

Enter Republican Ed Gillespie. Like McAuliffe, he’s a former national party chairman best known for political success outside of Virginia. Like McAuliffe, he has made money operating where government contacts and business interests intersect. This is not to overlook Gillespie’s far greater role in state politics, including a stint as chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia. But Gillespie is easily depicted as a McAuliffe-like national politician more beholden to Washington than Virginia. Until Nov. 5, Gillespie had to question whether such a resume could ever appeal to the swing voters needed to defeat the popular Warner.

Apparently not now, as our sources tell us they expect him to run. Why? A recent poll by noted GOP pollster Kelly Anne Conway had Warner only leading a generic GOP nominee 50-45. Still, a savvy pro like Gillespie knows such numbers are derivative. He would check to find out the cause.

Our hunch: He learned that voters are surprised when told of Warner’s support for Obamacare. That vote is a huge liability right now among the Virginians whom Gillespie needs to attract to be more than a sacrificial lamb. And should he run, it would mean a major national GOP guru is betting he can use Obamacare to bring someone of Warner’s stature down.

Impossible? Mark Warner knows better. In 1996, Warner, then a rookie candidate, challenged incumbent Republican Sen. John Warner. D.C. political gurus considered John Warner, a Washington fixture, to be an easy winner. But the younger Warner’s “MarkNotJohn” campaign pounded the incumbent as having lost touch with working Virginians. Those TV ads proved powerful. The supposedly unbeatable Republican only narrowly survived. Roughly 20 years earlier, this same anti-incumbent mantra caused “unbeatable” Democratic Sen. Bill Spong to lose a re-election bid.

Polls confirm that voters are in a strong anti-incumbent mood. Midterm elections in a president’s sixth-year have historically produced good results for the “out” party. Thus our tips on Gillespie dream sheet: a resume no longer regarded as an albatross, historical voting patterns seen as a blessing and Obamacare looking like a political gift that will keep giving.

Given enough campaign cash, it is a plausible hypothesis. On paper.  But Mark Warner is far stronger than Chuck Robb or George Allen were when they lost Senate re-election bids. Should Gillespie run, he starts as an untested candidate and decided underdog to Virginia’s top vote-getter. But if his dream sheet proves true, and he can avoid divisive social issues, he could be a contender.

Norman Leahy is an editor of the conservative Web site BearingDrift.com and producer of the political radio show “The Score.” Paul Goldman is a former chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia. They are blogging together on All Opinions Are Local during Virginia’s 2014 General Assembly session.

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Dan Reed | December 24, 2013