RICHMOND — U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner made clear at a campaign event Thursday how he hopes to persuade Virginians to give him a second term this year: by emphasizing his centrist image and business background.
At a Richmond appearance kicking off a six-day tour across the state, the Democrat gamely fielded questions from tech entrepreneurs and reminded the room how he turned his business know-how into a personal fortune.
“Innovators in the room, I failed miserably twice,” said Warner, co-founder of the company that became Nextel. “Third shot, though, I got into a little business called cellphones, managed to eke out a living.”
Warner emphasized his focus on finding bipartisan solutions to the nation’s biggest problems, from the national debt and college affordability to immigration reform and transportation infrastructure. And he didn’t mention President Obama.
He made the exact opposite case, in fact, that Ed Gillespie, the leading Republican candidate hoping to challenge him, has been making to erode Warner’s long-standing popularity. Warner, Gillespie has said, has voted with Obama’s agenda 97 percent of the time, including for the Affordable Care Act. Betting on voter discontent with Democrats, Gillespie hopes to be part of a Republican wave bent on taking control of the Senate.
Gillespie may have another issue on which to pummel Warner: the scandal surrounding Department of Veterans Affairs officials’ falsification of reports on VA hospital wait times for former service members. On Thursday, Warner joined an increasing number of Democrats calling for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki to resign after a watchdog report documented that the falsifications have been systemic.
“Like every American, I’m outraged by the lack of care to our veterans,” Warner told reporters. “The most troubling part is the inspector general’s report — I reviewed it last night — shows that this is not one rogue hospital, but this is institutionalized across the system.”
Warner developed a reputation for reaching across the aisle as Virginia’s popular 69th governor, giving him a leg up in a state where incumbency isn’t necessarily a dirty word.
“At the starting gate, Mark’s fundamental underlying strengths should not be underestimated, and maybe conversely Gillespie’s fundamentally underlying weaknesses should not be underestimated,” U.S. Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said in a phone interview. “Gillespie may be exposed as a paper tiger when it’s all said and done. Lobbyist, political operator, end of résumé.”
A former chairman of the Republican National Committee, longtime force in GOP politics but first-time candidate, Gillespie may have the connections and fundraising muscle to battle Warner on television and in the state’s rural areas and cities. And he’s trying to unify a divided Virginia Republican Party, wounded by last year’s loss of all three statewide offices.
Thomas M. Davis III, a former Republican congressman from Northern Virginia, acknowledged that Warner has a tail wind but said Gillespie is a serious contender.
“I think Ed has shown a keen political acumen, an ability to raise money, and has breathed life into a party that was flat on its back following a gubernatorial loss. However, Mark Warner has been the most popular politician in the state and is a tough target,” Davis said.
The Rothenberg Political Report predicts Warner is “favored” to retain his seat, and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball Web site calls it “likely” to remain in the Democrats’ column.
The latest poll, a Quinnipiac survey taken in March, reinforces Warner’s strong but not untouchable position. Of those surveyed, 55 percent approved of his job performance, while 33 percent disapproved. Warner also led Gillespie by 15 points, though the low Democratic turnout common in midterm elections could shrink that gap.
But Gillespie must first secure his party’s support at the GOP state convention in Roanoke next month. He has three opponents: Shak Hill, a retired combat pilot; businessman Chuck Moss; and Tony DeTora, a congressional policy adviser.
The Quinnipiac poll also showed 52 percent of voters opposed the Obama administration’s health-care law, while 44 percent supported it. And it revealed a potentially toxic Obama factor: 33 percent of voters said they’d be less likely to support Warner if the president campaigns for him.
None of that came up Thursday as Warner held court in Richmond, answering questions about net neutrality, tax incentives and attracting a skilled workforce. He appeared at 804RVA, a shared work space covered in colorful sticky notes.
Warner praised the man who introduced him for squeezing four points into a four-minute pitch. “Been there, done that as well,” he said.
The event was Warner’s second in a 14-stop tour over six days, which started Wednesday in rural Wise County, in the southwestern corner of the state. After Richmond, Warner traveled to Norfolk and up to Arlington, where Connolly and fellow Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.) were to join him. On Friday, Warner was scheduled to visit Leesburg, Winchester, Harrisonburg and Charlottesville. He raised $2.7 million in the first quarter of 2014.
In full campaign mode, Warner told Richmond’s tech crowd that the nation’s $17 trillion debt keeps him up at night.
“The reason why I’m going to ask you to rehire me is because there’s much more work to be done,” he said.
Playing down partisan politics, Warner talked about reaching across the aisle.
“Every major piece of legislation I’ve worked on, I’ve got a Republican partner,” he said. “I know a lot of us in this room are Democrats, but I don’t think quite honestly Americans trust either party enough to give them a blank check at this point.”
M. Scott Ford, co-founder of a company called Corgibytes that maintains software applications, asked Warner about net neutrality.
“I got the sense that he does have a good understanding of the complexities involved,” Ford said later. “That was refreshing.”
Ford and his business partner, Andrea Goulet Ford, don’t have a favorite in the Senate race, and he noted that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) held a campaign event in the space last month. Like most voters, they’re not really paying attention yet.
“I like what I heard today,” Goulet Ford said. “I also liked some of the things that Cantor had to say.”