By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
Democrat Mark R. Warner cruised to a decisive victory in the U.S. Senate race against Republican James S. Gilmore III yesterday, giving Virginia two Democratic senators for the first time in almost four decades.
The two former governors spent a year vying to replace retiring Republican Sen. John W. Warner in a race that was overshadowed by the battle for Virginia in the presidential election. The two Warners are unrelated.
Warner, 53, was winning with nearly two-thirds of the vote with almost all precincts reporting. He dominated every region of the state, with about a quarter of self-described Republicans casting a ballot for Warner, exit polls said.
Warner, who left office in 2006 with record-high approval ratings, describes himself as a bipartisan leader who will go to Washington to form a group of "radical centrists" to solve problems.
He pledged to develop a plan to start bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq, but without a specific timetable, and to boost education in an effort to compete in global markets. He promised to invest in new energy sources, including offshore oil drilling, which he had initially been reluctant to embrace, and to rebuild sagging infrastructure before more disasters, such as the bridge collapse in Minneapolis.
Warner took the stage at the ballroom of the Hilton McLean Tysons Corner about 10 p.m. Hundreds greeted him with chants of "Warner! Warner!"
"Tonight, by a record margin, Virginians said they want their next U.S. senator to focus on results, not rhetoric," he said. "Virginians understand at this critical moment for our nation that we're not going to get our country back on track if we continue to look at our problems through the old ideas of red versus blue, left versus right."
Gilmore called Warner after 9 p.m. to congratulate him and then spoke to 150 supporters at a party at a hotel outside Richmond.
JoAnn Grainger, 50, who works at Georgetown University and tends to vote for Democrats, said she cast her ballot for Warner at the Madison Adult Day Health Center in North Arlington.
"I thought he did a good job as governor, and also he's on the Democratic ticket," she said. "I generally believe in the two-party system and checks and balances, but there's a lot of change that's not going to happen unless there is a real mandate."
The last time Virginia had two Democratic U.S. senators was in 1970, when Harry F. Byrd and William B. Spong were in office.
"It's just a tremendous tail wind for us," Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) said. "Going forward, we just have to stick to the plan, which is: Solve problems and stick together. Solve problems and be unified. It's very simple. There's nothing magical about this; be problem-solvers and unifiers, and we'll do fine."
Warner's victory delivered a severe setback to Gilmore, once considered a rising star in his party until a lengthy budget battle with state legislators left his reputation in tatters. He narrowly won his party's nomination against a lesser-known state delegate.
Robert D. Holsworth, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, said that he was somewhat surprised that Gilmore, 59, did not do better but that his campaign never got started.
"This is a person who has politics in his blood, but he's somebody who simply didn't have enough friends in his own party to make him competitive," Holsworth said of Gilmore. "It was a far easier stroll for Mark Warner than he even imagined."
Both parties initially thought Virginia's open Senate seat would be one of the hardest-fought races in the nation. Republicans hoped to hold on to the seat in what many in the party still consider a conservative state, while Democrats hoped a win would further solidify Virginia's gradual blue shift.
But after Warner and Gilmore won their parties' nominations this summer, national political watchers quickly dubbed the Senate seat the most likely to turn from Republican to Democratic.
"Gilmore got in a race he wasn't prepared for," said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes the Senate for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington. "If he had proven he could put together a campaign and could be competitive, they would have taken a look at him."
Warner started a Democratic resurgence in the state when he won the governor's mansion in 2001. Kaine (D) and Sen. James Webb (D) continued that trend by winning statewide races in 2005 and 2006, respectively. Democrats won a majority in the state Senate last year.
Warner flirted with running for president last year before setting his sights on the U.S. Senate. He ran his Senate campaign much like his run for governor.
He won office in 2001 by casting himself as a moderate who would bring a businesslike approach to office while staying above the partisan fray.
More than any politician in recent Virginia history, he demonstrated appeal to both suburbanites in fast-growing Northern Virginia and less-affluent rural voters. He became the first statewide Democratic candidate in a generation to win a majority of the vote in rural Virginia after an aggressive years-long campaign that included famously sponsoring a NASCAR vehicle.
Warner dominated the polls and fundraising from the moment the two former governors jumped into the race.
Warner raised $12.3 million for his campaign and had $3.6 million in the bank as of Sept. 30. Gilmore raised $2.2 million through his campaign and a joint fundraising committee with the state Republican Party. He had less than $200,000 in the bank as of Sept. 30.
Staff writers Mark Berman, Michael Birnbaum, Fredrick Kunkle and Sandhya Somashekhar contributed to this report.
For an interactive map of congressional and presidential race results, visithttp://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/interactives/campaign08/election/vacounties.html.