Under the radar screen of MSM reporting on the midterms, Republican Ed Gillespie is quietly but steadily catching up to incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Warner in Virginia. By hammering his opponent on his unwavering support for President Obama’s key policies — which the president declared “are on the ballot” — and offering his own specific proposals, Gillespie has closed the race to 10 points.  Without the independent on the ballot, that gap narrows to one point. This week Gillespie rolled out an Obamacare alternative plan that “would reduce insurance premiums, enhance access to doctors, and increase the number of people with private insurance by 6 million more than Obamacare will. Gillespie’s plan would give a tax credit to everyone who buys health insurance in the individual market.” (He also has rolled out an economic recovery plan and lambasted Warner for supporting sequestration that has led to huge cuts in defense.)


Sen. Mark Warner. (Bob Brown/Associated Press)

Then things got very interesting when Warner was implicated in a scandal. The Post reported: “The son of a former Virginia state senator has told federal investigators that U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner discussed the possibility of several jobs, including a federal judgeship, for the senator’s daughter in an effort to dissuade him from quitting the evenly divided state Senate.” Gillespie told Right Turn, “The report that Sen. Warner may have suggested a federal judgeship or other job in relation to a political decision is deeply troubling. We all need more answers on this matter, and he owes Virginians a full explanation of his actions”

At issue is whether the state senator was bribed by one side or the other in his decision to resign and thereby switch control of the state senate to Republicans. Warner’s response was less than a full-throated denial: “Warner spokesman acknowledged Friday that the conversation occurred, but he emphasized that the senator had made no explicit job offer.” Not explicit but perhaps an obvious effort to induce her father not to resign his seat. (“Warner was part of a string of high-powered Virginia Democrats who in early June pressed then-state senator Phillip P. Puckett not to go through with plans to give up his seat in the middle of a bitterly partisan battle over health care.”)

In fact, Warner was a virtual career guidance counselor for the senator’s daughter: “On June 6, three days before the state senator’s resignation became official, Warner called Puckett’s son, Joseph, and discussed an appointment to the federal bench as well as a potential corporate position for Martha Puckett Ketron, according to Joseph Puckett’s attorney, Charles E. ‘Chuck’ James Jr. of Williams Mullen.” This occurs in a state where a former governor, Robert McDonnell, was convicted on multiple felony counts for merely making phone calls and setting up meetings (deemed to be “official acts”) to benefit a donor and friend of his wife. Simply being “helpful” is no excuse and, as we learned in the McDonnell trial, there does not need to be an explicit (there’s that word again) quid pro quo. The evidence of an attempt to sway the senator via help for his daughter is intriguing:

“Senator Warner was not in a position to offer, and never did offer, any job to Mrs. Ketron, Warner spokesman Kevin Hall said. “When he spoke to Senator Puckett the following day, it was clear that he had made up his mind and had already drafted his letter of resignation.”

“’Talked to Warner for an hour last night,’ Joseph Puckett wrote in the message, read to The Washington Post by two people close to the matter. He went on to report, ‘He had no answer for how Democrats could deliver for Martha except for a potential corporate gig of some kind, which is not what she wants.'”

In other words, Warner was trying to persuade young Puckett but could not prove he could make the jobs all happen. (McDonnell wasn’t able to deliver either, but that didn’t matter to the jury.) Warner was not seeking pecuniary benefit for himself, but he was seeking something for his party. What might have seemed like political backscratching a year ago, in light of McDonnell, takes on the aura of something more sinister. Imagine if Puckett decided not to resign his seat because he understood Warner would use his office to give his kids extra help that no other Virginian would be getting. A potential headline — “Warner keeps Puckett in line and Puckett kids employed” — would have been damning.

To be clear, Warner has not been charged with anything. But involvement in a scheme under investigation by the feds is not going to help him keep his state. He has been laying low and essentially relying on name recognition and past popularity to slide through. If nothing else, the scandal may put him under the spotlight at a time anti-incumbent fervor is running high. Look for Gillespie to narrow the race even further.

Whether Warner winds up in legal hot water remains to be seen, but for voters rocked by a trial detailing favoritism, greed and manipulation, this incident will put Warner, a once popular governor, in a different light and emphasize Gillespie’s charge that Warner has become a captive of D.C. sleazy politics.