Virginia Sen. Webb won't run for reelection, leaving Democrats looking to Kaine

By Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 15, 2011; 11:28 AM

Sen. James Webb's announcement Wednesday that he will not run for reelection sent Virginia Democrats scrambling to find a replacement in a turbulent 2012 national landscape that already is tilted in favor of Republicans.

Having suffered losses in the 2009 gubernatorial contest and the 2010 congressional elections, Democrats in the state were hopeful that Webb, an iconoclastic Marine veteran and former Navy secretary, would enlist for another tough battle. George Allen (R), the incumbent whom Webb beat after a heated and controversial campaign in 2006, is running to regain the seat, and at least one other Republican has joined the race. The Democratic field is now suddenly wide open and relatively thin on seasoned candidates.

Democrats across the state and the nation quickly trained their hopes on former Virginia governor Timothy M. Kaine, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Other potential candidates include a trio of Democrats who lost their congressional seats in 2010 and a handful of current officeholders.

Webb, who turned 65 on Wednesday, shed little light on what motivated his decision. In a statement, he expressed pride for all that he has accomplished in his single term, and he concluded by saying that "after much thought and consideration I have decided to return to the private sector, where I have spent most of my professional life, and will not seek re-election in 2012."

He joins some other prominent Virginia Democrats who have left public office in the past two years. But the 2012 Senate contest will help establish whether Virginia is becoming a swing state or is returning to its conservative roots.

Political momentum in the state has seesawed over the past decade. Democrats won gubernatorial elections in 2001 and 2005, took Senate contests in 2006 and 2008 and added to their congressional delegation. Barack Obama also won the state in 2008, the first time a Democratic presidential candidate had done so since 1964.

But Republicans have rebounded, as Robert F. McDonnell won the governor's race with ease in 2009 and the GOP unseated Democratic Reps. Rick Boucher, Glenn Nye and Tom Perriello in 2010. All three defeated Democrats are considered possible Senate candidates.

'Electoral magnetism'

Webb is the third Democratic (or Democratic-affiliated) senator to announce his retirement this year, joining Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Kent Conrad (N.D.) on the sidelines. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Tex.) is the lone Republican to announce that she will not seek reelection in 2012.

While retaining the Connecticut seat should pose relatively few problems for Democrats, both Virginia and North Dakota have deep GOP roots and will be major targets for Republicans in 2012.

The open seats - and the fact that 23 Democratic seats will be up this cycle, compared with 10 for the GOP - paint a stark portraitof the challenge Democrats facein their effort to hold their Senate majority, and Republicans welcomed Wednesday's news.

"While there is no doubt Republicans will field a strong leader as our nominee, Democrats will have great difficulty finding an electable candidate for this open seat," predicted Brian Walsh, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Virginia Democratic Party spokesman Brian Coy countered that "this development does not in any way diminish our prospects for 2012" and said the field of potential candidates is large because "there's no shortage of people who know that running against the likes of George Allen is a good way to get elected to the United States Senate."

Allen said that he respects Webb's decision and that he "did not enter into this race to run against any one person, but to fight for the families of Virginia to improve their opportunities in life."

Jamie Radtke, former chairman of the Virginia Tea Party Patriots Federation, is also seeking the GOP nomination. Del. Bob Marshall (R-Prince William) has said he is considering a run, as is Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large), chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors.

For 2012, Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D) said, "the strongest [Democratic] candidates would be Tim Kaine, Tom Perriello and Rick Boucher, probably in that order."

Rep. Gerald Connolly (D) agreed that Kaine is the leader of the pack. "He has some electoral magnetism that would make him the instant front-runner on either side," he said.

In a statement, Kaine praised Webb for his service and declared himself "confident" of a Democratic victory in Virginia next year. But he did not directly address whether he might seek the job.

Other names

Webb has been an idiosyncratic figure on Capitol Hill - someone who never seemed to embrace the more political and personal aspects of the job such as raising money and attending ceremonial events. He took in just over $12,000 in the fourth quarter of 2010 and finished the year with $445,000 in the bank, less than nearly every other senator facing a tough race in 2012.

Running for reelection would have required Webb to ramp up his fundraising quickly. He and Allen spent a combined $25 million in their 2006 contest, while Sen. Mark R. Warner (D) burned through $12.5 million in his successful 2008 campaign.

Several Democratic sources suggested that Kaine would run only if Obama asked him to. It's not clear whether the president will do so, although he and Kaine have a long and close relationship.

Perriello, who served one term before losing his Charlottesville-based seat to Robert Hurt (R), is the favorite of many activists on the left; a "Draft Perriello" petition was already online and gaining signatures Wednesday. But some in the party privately argue that his profile is too liberal and that his name not known well enough statewide to win. Perriello did not return a call seeking comment.

Boucher, meanwhile, intrigues some Democrats because he held a Republican-leaning seat in southwestern Virginia for nearly three decades before falling to Republican Morgan Griffith. Boucher ended his 2010 campaign with $700,000 in the bank, which could form a substantial down payment for a Senate bid. Boucher did not respond to a request for comment.

Regardless of their eventual candidate, Democrats hope that having Obama atop the ballot in 2012 will drive their voters back to the polls.

"I think it's helpful," said Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott (D). "One of the things that hurt last year was the fact that turnout was so miserable."

Staff writers Rosalind S. Helderman, Anita Kumar, Mike DeBonis and Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company