SOUTH HILL, Va. — Sen. Mark R. Warner distanced himself from President Obama on Tuesday in rural Southside Virginia, a region where he is hoping that deep distrust of the Democratic White House won’t preclude voters from hearing him out.
In a town hall meeting with employees of a third-generation family oil company, Warner, who is seeking his second term, said he opposes the ban on offshore drilling, embraced the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction plan and, earlier this summer, warned Obama of an impending immigration crisis.
“There’s a lot of places I disagree with the president,” Warner (D) told an audience of Parker Oil workers and residents gathered in a wood-paneled room with flowered curtains.
The strategy could go a long way toward helping Warner win reelection even as Republicans close in on some of his colleagues in an effort to win a majority in the Senate.
Warner’s GOP challenger, Ed Gillespie, has tried to tie Warner to Obama, whose popularity has declined in Virginia. Gillespie regularly uses the refrain that Warner has voted with the president 97 percent of the time.
Despite the strong anti-Obama sentiment here, many voters seemed charmed by Warner’s bipartisan, pro-business message, while Gillespie faces an uphill battle to introduce himself to voters. Many Virginians have not heard of the longtime strategist and former lobbyist, who has been a player in Washington for decades.
“If you start in the middle and build out, that’s a better way to get stuff done,” Warner said of his penchant for working with like-minded Republicans.
He went on to call for a tax-code simplification modeled on recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles Commission, which the Obama administration has not embraced.
Asked about offshore drilling, Warner said he has supported exploration off the coast of Virginia since 2008, as long as the commonwealth retains some of the revenue. He added that he did not support the administration’s drilling ban.
In April, Warner joined 10 other Democrats in signing a letter urging Obama to approve the Keystone XL pipeline extension, which would carry heavy crude oil from Alberta’s oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries. The president has not taken action.
“The world needs a strong America — economically, militarily and morally,” Warner said.
Warner noted that in a June letter, he warned Obama that the country could face an influx of undocumented immigrants. He said the Republican-majority House of Representatives has yet to come up with an answer on immigration other than “No.”
Gillespie spokesman Paul Logan said Warner’s rhetoric doesn’t match his voting record.
“Mark Warner hasn’t been the senator he said he would be,” he said. “His press releases sound bipartisan, but his votes have been very partisan. As Ed said in the [July 26] debate, reaching across the aisle isn’t an end in and of itself. You have to get things done.”
James Bohannon, 65, a town council member in nearby Chase City, decried the overall dysfunction of Washington but said he thinks Warner is on the right track. He blamed “the whole group” of Washington politicians for allowing jobs to go overseas, lamenting the nearby closings of two garment factories, two grocery stores and a shoe factory within 10 years.
“We struggle. We’ve lost industry. Jobs have disappeared,” said Bohannon, the plant manager at Parker Oil. “We’d just like to see some stuff come back. We don’t ask for everything back, just a small percentage just to get the workforce back and salaries back into the community.”
Although Bonnie Greene, a Republican, said she wasn’t yet paying attention to the Senate race, she said she is opposed to the Affordable Care Act. She said that Obama hasn’t delivered on his promise that health-insurance rebates would fall by $2,500 after his first term. In fact, she said, hers went up.
“Where’s my check?” said Greene, 59. “It’s come on the backs of taxpayers, and that’s me.”
One of Greene’s co-workers at Parker, Thelma Baird, a Republican, said she, too, was leery of the president and worried that his immigration policy has had unintended consequences.
“I just don’t think it’s right, because we have children here that we need to help,” said Baird, 58. “Obama — he agreed to them coming over here, I truly believe that.”
Once dependent on tobacco farming and textile manufacturing, Southside Virginia has transformed from a Democratic stronghold into a solidly Republican area over the past several years.
“Back then, you almost had to be a Democrat,” Baird said. “As I grew older, working, paying taxes, seeing the reality of life, I became more of a Republican.”
Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli II carried Mecklenburg County by 16 percentage points over Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) last year in an election in which Democrats successfully branded the Republican as too conservative for the rapidly changing, vote-rich Northern Virginia.
Parker Oil, which sits along a strip of warehouses about 14 miles from the North Carolina border, hosted Warner’s town hall Tuesday, but company officials stressed that it wasn’t endorsing a candidate in the race.