When former governor of Virginia Mark Warner was elected to the Senate in 2006, hopes were high that he would be the sort of moderate Democrat who would help reconstitute a centrist, bipartisan faction in the Senate. But his efforts have either been ham-handed (such as the Gang of Six deal that helped sink the grand bargain in 2011 and envisioned huge defense cuts and tax hikes) or non-existent.
Faced now with the debt ceiling, the sequestration and the end of the continuing resolution, he is in a particularly tricky spot. While his poll numbers are high, his record has not yet been seriously challenged, nor his responsiveness to his state’s needs attacked.
His most challenging issue may be on national security, both in the confirmation fight on Chuck Hagel and in the sequestration, which has been delayed but not replaced and which Hagel seemingly cheered for. So far Warner has been publicly silent on Hagel.
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell is keeping the heat on, voicing extreme concern about the sequester’s impact on Virginia. His spokesman Tucker Martin tells me: “The Governor is extremely concerned about the negative impact sequestration could have on both national defense and Virginia’s economy.” He adds, “An immediate and arbitrary across the board slashing of defense spending would weaken our military and threaten our economic recovery. It is not the right path forward. As an Army veteran, and the Governor of a Commonwealth with a very important military presence, the Governor is calling on Congress and the President to step in now to prevent sequestration from taking place.” Congress means the two Democratic senators as well.
As for the sequester, longtime congressman Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) was blunt during a phone call Tuesday afternoon. “Virginia, Texas and California will be hardest hit by the sequestration,” he said. Indeed a study by George Mason University estimates that 207,000 jobs both in the Defense Department and in the private sector would be lost. This is second only to California, and represents a much larger portion of the state’s workforce.
Virginia House of Delegates member Barbara Comstock, considered a rising figure in the state GOP, echoes Wolf’s and McDonnell’s warnings. She tells me: “The widespread and bipartisan opposition to former Senator Chuck Hagel’s nomination as Defense Secretary should raise serious concerns for Virginia’s Senators who will vote on his confirmation. Virginia is a critical national security state with tens of thousands of vital defense and technology jobs at stake.” She adds, “Top Obama officials tout Chuck Hagel as the ‘sort of guy’ you want making ‘huge cuts to the Pentagon.’ While Chuck Hagel’s incendiary remarks and record on Israel and Iran are disturbing enough and out of the mainstream; Hagel also appears dismissive about the pending sequestration cuts that will particularly hurt our national security as well as Virginia’s jobs and economy.” She is in good company, as she reminds me, “Current Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta correctly notes the sequestration cuts would result in ‘hollowing out the force’ and would be ‘devastating.’ Chuck Hagel has not voiced such concerns. America’s security and Virginia national security and high tech jobs hang in the balance.”
Wolf is greatly concerned that absent an overall deal akin to Simpson-Bowles (which he supported), sequestration will go through. “I don’t see how it is going to be done,” he said of efforts to prevent the axe from falling.
In Virginia sequestration, Wolf told me, “will have a serious impact. It is already happening. Defense contractors are laying off sub-contractors.” He observed, “The whole state gets hit. The Tidewater [region] — I don’t want to say ‘devastated — but gets hit pretty hard.” He has no doubt about the sequestration’s affect on the 2012 election, when Warner is up in an off-year facing a more conservative electorate. “It will be about jobs.” In that case Warner might want to figure out how to stop the sequester and/or refuse to rubber stamp its loudest cheerleader; otherwise he could be a victim of the second term, mid-term election curse, usually the death knell for many incumbents of the president’s party.
Some of his Democratic colleagues are willing to grab a fig-leaf, such as Hagel’s sudden conversions on a host of issues. Republicans aren’t buying it, as the GOP whip Sen. John Cornyn said today, ” No closed-door White House meeting with a single Senator or a letter can erase a problematic 12-year Senate record and many troubling public statements from Sen. Hagel. Retractions of long-held positions raise serious questions about where Sen. Hagel stands on critical issues of national defense. Our nation and our men and women in uniform need a Secretary of Defense who says what he means and means what he says.” And Virginians need one more than most.