Let’s set aside the turmoil and the baggage of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, and Attorney General Mark R. Herring, all Democrats, to look at a Virginia Democrat who appears to be marching into a surprisingly bright and assured political future: Sen. Mark R. Warner.
The commonwealth’s senior senator faces reelection in 2020. It looks now as if he will not only win a third term, but he may not face organized, credible opposition in the process.
That’s an enormous change from his 2014 race against then-GOP nominee Ed Gillespie. Warner managed to win that race, but by fewer than 18,000 votes of more than 2.1 million cast statewide.
As Paul Goldman and I wrote at the time, exit polling strongly suggested Warner owed his second term to Libertarian nominee Robert Sarvis, who played the role of spoiler at the ballot box, while not exposing the rot inside Warner’s supposedly formidable political machine.
His diminished position in Virginia and nationally was confirmed in 2016, when Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton picked Warner’s longtime understudy, Sen. Tim Kaine, as her running mate.
For a man who once was touted as a possible alternative to Clinton, it was a reminder of how mercurial political fame and power can be.
To his credit, however, Warner has successfully shaken off the 2014 shock and the 2016 snub, no small feat in a status-conscious Washington.
Warner has devoted himself to being a serious legislator and a pointed critic of President Trump from his perch as vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
All to the good — and enough, it seems, for some Democrats to have asked Warner to consider running for president in 2020.
That is a non-starter. But it’s also a boon to Warner.
Warner will likely have an easier time winning a third term in 2020 with Trump heading the opposition ticket than he did winning his first Senate term in 2008.
That year, Barack Obama became the first Democratic presidential nominee since Lyndon Johnson to win the commonwealth. But Warner was the top vote-getter, defeating his GOP opponent, former governor Jim Gilmore, by more than 1 million votes.
It is highly unlikely Warner will face a primary challenger. And Virginia Republicans would have to get their act together and field a credible candidate to challenge him.
Christopher Newport University professor Rachel Bitecofer said Warner is “benefiting from Trump backlash just like everyone else.”
Bitecofer said Warner is generally seen as unbeatable in this climate, “which is why I highly doubt he will draw a serious challenger.”
For Republicans, it’s a setting up to be a grim replay of the 2018 race against Kaine.
“Keep in mind,” Bitecofer said, “the reason the GOP ended up with Stewart as the nominee in 2018 was the same thoughts about Kaine.”
Who might Republicans put forward against Warner?
Republicans have their hands full with this November’s General Assembly elections — races that, in some instances, they seem intent on fumbling away.
But as Republican operatives know, mounting a credible Senate run means a candidate has to be in the field right now shaking hands, building name recognition and quietly raising money.
That no one appears to be doing any of that — and those who could are saving themselves for a run at the governorship in 2021 — means Bitecofer is right as can be: Warner will not have a serious challenger in 2020.
The big question is whether the GOP challenges him at all.