“Of course, a lot of people would feel very good about Mark being at the table . . . and being the ultimate decider on a lot of those issues,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), Warner’s closest Republican ally.
Warner’s incessant complaints about the way both parties have handled the budget crisis have not endeared him to Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), with whom Warner has had a bumpy relationship. But party leaders have relied on Warner — who is viewed as a key player among younger, reform-oriented Senate Democrats — to serve as an emissary to the business world.
Behind the scenes, Warner has unsuccessfully sought to drum up support for implementing term limits for committee chairmen. Veteran senators have resisted giving up their gavels. Warner has also tried to win a seat on the Finance Committee, which would give him a role in any forthcoming tax reform.
Warner was quick out of the gate when he entered the Senate. He teamed up with Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) in 2010 to write two key portions of the Dodd-Frank bill that reformed the financial system. Nothing has gone quite as smoothly since then.
Now, Warner is working with Corker on housing finance issues, while pushing for increased domestic energy production and for offering more immigration visas to entrepreneurs and students earning math or science degrees. Warner also hopes to enlist Northern Virginia technology leaders to help improve the system for electronically verifying workers’ immigration status.
“Am I satisfied? Absolutely not,” Warner said. “What’s so unusual is you hear people saying you’re making a big imprint for a freshman. But I’ve never thought [in that] kind of time frame. . . . This is a different and, to me, foreign role that I’ve never played and I’m still trying to figure it out.”
A looming decision
Virginia has a tendency to elect senators, often former governors, who don’t seem thrilled to have the job.
Chuck Robb (D) said he was frustrated by the Senate’s pace, which George Allen (R) famously compared to “a wounded sea slug.” Kaine had his arm twisted before agreeing to run in last year’s contest to succeed Webb, who decided one term was enough. Now Warner faces his own choice.
“I’ll make those decisions at an appropriate time,” Warner said.
Polls consistently give Warner the highest job-approval rating of any statewide officeholder, and he would not be easy to beat in 2014. Democrats hope Warner stays, as the party’s bench behind him is relatively thin.
“He’s got broad-based bipartisan appeal,” said longtime Democratic strategist Mo Elleithee. “He’s the guy who redefined what it meant to be a Virginia Democrat 12 years ago.”
While noting that no top-tier Republicans have signaled they planned to challenge Warner, Elleithee said, “I think he would be the first to tell you that he’s not going to kick up his heels. . . . Virginia is a volatile enough state electorally that no one can ever rest on their laurels.”
But some Republicans believe Warner is more vulnerable than poll numbers suggest.
“Mark Warner is the luckiest politician in the commonwealth of Virginia,” said consultant Chris LaCivita, arguing that Warner’s Senate voting record is more party-line Democrat than is commonly portrayed.
LaCivita said his fellow Republicans have failed to be aggressive in challenging Warner. “No one from the Republican side of the aisle has laid a glove on him . . . and because of that the perception of Mark Warner the untouchable or Mark Warner the moderate . . . is completely and utterly baseless,” LaCivita said.
Warner may not have committed to running again, but he is dropping some hints.
“You’ve recently seen some members who say, ‘These problems are so challenging, I’m going to try to do this on the outside rather than the inside,’ ” Warner said. “For all the frustrations, there is always still more you can do inside the Senate than almost anywhere else.”