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Warner Retirement Could Lead to Dem Sweep in VA

By Reid Wilson

As population moves and ideology shifts, Democrats have found new success in states which have long stymied their progress. Thanks to shifting political fortunes and an influx of new voters into one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the country, Virginia is one of those states. In 2008, Democrats think they have a good chance of picking up a crucial U.S. Senate seat in the Commonwealth, primarily because of what could be the bloodiest primary in the nation.

The rosy scenario hinges on one key proposition: That long-time Virginia Senator John Warner, a moderate Republican seen as an expert on the military and on foreign policy by both parties, hangs up his spikes and leaves public service. The five-term senator, who served as Secretary of the Navy, has faced just two serious challenges in his long career.

In his last race, Warner faced two independents and took home 83% of the vote. If he made a bid for a sixth term, it is unlikely any serious challenger would emerge.

But so far, Warner has shown little interest in raising money, fueling rumors that he may be ready, at age 80, to retire. Warner has raised just $72,414 since the 2006 elections, including a haul of only $500 in the first quarter of this year. He retained $734,000 cash on hand through June 30, though he paid just one employee in 2008, according to FEC data.

Should Warner retire, the stage will be set for a long-anticipated fight between two wings of the Virginia Republican Party. Congressman Tom Davis, a moderate from the Washington suburbs in Northern Virginia, will likely face off against conservative former Governor Jim Gilmore, who dropped out of the presidential race earlier this year but has recently talked openly of running for the Senate.

Neither has said they will run, out of deference to the incumbent, but both are making moves indicating their willingness to jump in at a moment's notice. Two sources said both candidates are making phone calls to supporters, telling them that they will run if the incumbent decides not to, in hopes of starting a campaign on strong footing.

Davis is making what looks suspiciously like a campaign swing through Southern Virginia this week, while Gilmore has done several interviews with Virginia media, answering questions about a possible Senate bid.

The moves come as no surprise to political observers. "The worst-kept secret in Washington is that Tom Davis wants to run statewide," said Craig Shirley, a veteran national Republican strategist with roots in the Virginia GOP. "This guy's been actually running his campaign [for Senate] for months," said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report. Davis has already stockpiled more than $1 million for an eventual run.

For his part, Gilmore seems to relish the chance to take on Davis in a primary. "Certainly, Congressman Davis would like to be the senator," he told the Charlottesville Daily Progress last week. "We're pretty confident that the message that I have and the record that I have would make me the nominee."

Both candidates have had political success, though their approach could hardly be more divergent. Davis hails from Northern Virginia, where he is often jokingly referred to as R-Orange Line, a reference to his advocacy for residents of Washington and the area's metro system. Supporters say that Davis' moderate stance, coupled with his home base in the north, makes him the perfect candidate to win statewide.

Senator George Allen lost Northern Virginia by about 120,000 votes in 2006, on his way to a narrow loss of less than half of one percent statewide. If Davis, popular in his Fairfax County base, can hold Democrats' margin down, while running up vote totals in the traditionally Republican south, he will be able to keep the seat in Republican hands, strategists say.

For Gilmore, the argument is reversed. Strategists for the governor point out that while Davis has never been elected statewide, Gilmore has twice won election, and remains popular with the GOP base. In calculating where Gilmore could do well, his backers say the governor is much better suited to a general election win than Davis. "The base Republican vote in Virginia is the downstate areas," said Boyd Marcus, a long-time Virginia political operative who will back Gilmore if he runs. "If you can't win the Richmond suburbs and you can't win rural Virginia, it doesn't make any difference what you do in Northern Virginia."

To Marcus, Gilmore's conservative credentials will make him the favorite not only in the primary but also in the general, as he is better able to appeal to the Republican base. "There are several Democrats who are stronger on some issues, like the life issue and gun issues, than Tom Davis."

There is little love lost between the two. Shirley, who is not yet backing a candidate in the race, sums up feelings many observers have: "It'll be a bloodbath," he says.

That bloodbath will play out in one of two ways, because of Virginia party rules: Candidates will compete either in a convention or in a primary, though many disagree on which forum benefits which candidate. A primary might benefit Davis, who would almost certainly have more money than Gilmore to spend on ads and organization. Or a primary could favor Gilmore, who is better known among the GOP base in the state's southern regions.

A convention, made up of party regulars, could help Davis, because those partisans would understand the need to nominate a candidate who can perform well politically. Davis would begin, some say, as the establishment candidate, despite Gilmore's former position as governor and his stint as chairman of the Republican National Committee. "There were a lot of establishment Republicans who were not members of the Jim Gilmore fan club," Shirley said.

Others argue that hyperpartisans likely to attend a convention would naturally back Gilmore, the more conservative of the two, and that Davis' money advantage would be taken away. "Republican conventions in Virginia tend to be intensely conservative," Marcus said. State Republican Assemblyman Terry Kilgore, the Republican caucus chair, hesitates to predict a winner: "You get surprised a lot at conventions," he said.

A larger question, says Duffy, is how Republicans approach the nominating process. "What drives them?" she asked. "Is it ideology or a need to win?" Pragmatic Republicans might choose Davis, thinking him stronger in a general election, while conservatives would be more comfortable with Gilmore.

The problem for the GOP is deeper than just a bloody primary, say many party strategists. "The entire definition of Virginia, the way the exurbs are shifting, is changing," said one Republican, who asked not to be named. "Not only do you have to stop the bleeding, but actually make some inroads."

The state's changing nature is reflected in Northern Virginia's growing prominence. "It's not one state, really. It's three different states at least," said Virginia Tech political scientist Craig Brians. The traditionally Republican Southside and the increasingly liberal Washington suburbs have balanced each other out, while Republicans usually do better around Richmond, in the center of the state.

But that dynamic is changing. Northern Virginia "is growing a whole lot faster," said Brians, while Democrats are doing better around Richmond.

"I don't think Virginia is the red state it used to be," Shirley said. "Certainly Ground Zero in this country for anti-Republican or anti-Bush attitudes is here in Northern Virginia." Duffy sees that anti-Republican area as key to any GOP win. "This might be the kind of year, a presidential year, where [Republicans have] got to be able to win some percentage of the vote in Northern Virginia to carry the state."

Whichever candidate takes the Republican nomination, their path to the Senate is far from certain. Former Democratic Governor Mark Warner, who once contemplated a White House bid himself, will come under intense pressure to run, but only if the incumbent Warner steps down. The two ran against each other in 1996, and though the Democrat outspent the incumbent by more than a 2-1 margin, John Warner prevailed by just 5%. John Warner's campaign, interestingly, was run by John Hishta, a long-time Davis ally who has gone back to work for the Congressman reportedly to prepare a 2008 bid.

Those close to Mark Warner say the former governor grew close to the senator during his term, and that he would not run against John Warner.

If the senator steps down, says Duffy, Mark Warner will have a difficult decision to make. "His head and his heart are having an argument," she said. On one hand, Warner knows that a Senate seat can be a stepping stone to a national platform. On the other, his name has been mentioned as a possible addition to a Democratic ticket in 2008. By running for Senate, "he absolutely shuts the door on the vice presidency." Warner's kitchen cabinet will meet in September, shortly after John Warner announces his future plans, to discuss the scenarios.

Mark Warner remains so popular throughout the Commonwealth that his candidacy would give Democrats a better than even shot of taking a seat they have not held since 1973. But neither Davis nor Gilmore would roll over and play dead. And both could benefit from Senator Hillary Clinton. If she tops the Democratic ticket, said Assemblyman Kilgore, "a lot of voters in [Republican] rural Virginia would have a huge reason to get to the polls."

Whether or not Clinton tops the ticket, if John Warner decides to announce his retirement in early September, Democrats will again target a state that, just a few years ago, gave Republicans both Senate seats and the governor's mansion. If Warner takes the seat, he will join Democratic Governor Tim Kaine and Senator Jim Webb in completing the sweep.

Reid Wilson, an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics, formerly covered polls and polling for The Hotline, National Journal’s daily briefing on politics. Wilson’s work has appeared in National Journal, Hotline OnCall and the Arizona Capitol Times. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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