By Tim Craig and Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 13, 2007
RICHMOND, Sept. 12 -- Former Virginia governor Mark R. Warner will announce today that he is running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican John W. Warner, setting the stage for one of the most competitive races in the country next year, according to sources familiar with his decision.
Warner, 52, a self-described moderate Democrat, will make his announcement in an e-mail to supporters Thursday but won't formally begin his campaign until after the state legislative races in November, according to the sources, who spoke directly with Warner.
Democrats in Virginia and nationally have been courting Warner in the hope that his entry in next year's race would help them retain their majority in the Senate. If Warner succeeded, Virginia would have two Democratic senators for the first time since 1970.
Republicans say they will fight hard to keep the Virginia seat, and political observers say more than $30 million could be spent on television and other advertisements as both parties battle in the key race. It will be the first Virginia race for U.S. Senate without an incumbent candidate since 1988.
A Warner victory next year would be demoralizing to Virginia Republicans, who were surprised by James Webb's win in last year's U.S. Senate race and Timothy M. Kaine's election as governor in 2005 over well-known GOP candidates.
Warner could face Rep. Thomas M. Davis III or former governor James S. Gilmore III. Both are likely to seek the Republican nomination, but neither is expected to announce plans until after the Nov. 6 state elections.
Davis declined to comment Wednesday, saying he would make a statement after Warner's announcement is official. Gilmore said that he is interested in the race and that Warner's decision would not affect his: "Sending a Democrat to the United States Senate at this very critical time is not the best policy."
Warner has appeared eager in recent days to run for the Senate. He plans to present himself to voters as a problem solver who would be willing to cross party lines to push bipartisan changes in Washington.
If he won, he would have a national platform to talk about fiscal responsibility, ending the war in Iraq and reshaping the country's energy policy.
Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) said Warner has been doing his homework, meeting with figures such as Lee H. Hamilton, co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group and Sept. 11 commission.
"Mark met the challenge of running a state very well," Moran said. "I think he's anxious to take on some new challenges."
Monica Dixon, a Warner spokeswoman, declined to comment. But the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because Warner had not gone public, said Warner called friends and party activists Wednesday afternoon to inform them of his plans.
Warner decided to formally reveal his decision electronically because he doesn't want his announcement to upstage the fall campaign for control of the General Assembly.
He plans to campaign heavily for legislative candidates as Democrats try to retake the state Senate and make inroads in the House of Delegates.
Warner, a wealthy venture capitalist who founded Nextel, also plans to start raising the millions of dollars he will need for a competitive race, the sources said. His friends and advisers say he will slowly begin assembling a campaign team, too.
Warner stunned supporters last fall when he abruptly ended his exploratory campaign for president, citing the strain on his family. He also has been mentioned as a vice presidential candidate next year, but the decision to run for Senate all but eliminates that possibility.
He agonized for weeks over whether to run for Senate or seek his old job in 2009. Virginia governors are barred from succeeding themselves.
A self-described executive, Warner loved being governor and often called it "the best job in America."
While in office, Warner helped close a multibillion-dollar budget deficit by trimming the size of government and pushing through a $1.5 billion tax increase. He also oversaw the state's efforts to catch the Washington area sniper in 2002 and its response to Hurricane Isabel in 2003.
But Warner was under tremendous pressure from national Democratic leaders to run for the Senate after John Warner announced two weeks ago that he would not seek reelection.
In recent weeks, Mark Warner has had several conversations with Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
In 1996, Warner came within five percentage points of defeating John Warner, in part because he ran surprisingly strongly for a Democrat in rural areas.
Uncertainty about Virginia's political environment in 2009 also played a role in Mark Warner's decision, his advisers say.
Although Virginia has elected two Democratic governors in a row, it remains relatively conservative. Warner wasn't convinced that voters would embrace his candidacy in 2009, especially if there is a Democratic president, his advisers say.
Even if he won the governor's race, some advisers cautioned that he might not enjoy the job as much the second time.
"It's very hard to have a second act that's equally successful," said Robert D. Holsworth, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. "If he's interested in contributing to the national debate, this will give him an opportunity."
Warner's decision might have come down to what he thought was best for his family. If he were elected to the Senate, his wife and three daughters wouldn't have to move from Alexandria.
Gardner reported from Fairfax County.