From Daily Kos to Instapundit, political junkies who glance at the Virginia Senate election reflect Chuck Schumer’s talking points: that Jim Webb is George Allen’s worst nightmare. Except for some assorted Virginia pundits, like Larry Sabato, those who have seen the campaign up close know better. Jim Webb’s strengths are all on paper, and absent from the campaign trail.
Against an extremely liberal ex-lobbyist, Harris Miller, Webb faced what should have been a fairly easy primary. Most party activists rallied behind Webb rather than their longtime ally and financier, in the hopes that he is the great savior against Sen. George Allen. Liberal blogs in and out of Virginia joined Webb’s cause, giving him the veneer of momentum.
A Webb victory looked like a no-brainer to those who follow politics through their computers. But Virginia voters told a different story as they went to the polls Tuesday. A paltry 3 percent of Virginia Democrats turned out for the primary, with only 53 percent opting for Webb. Hardly an upsurge.
What is worse is that 35 percent of Webb’s votes came from the Democratic strongholds of Arlington and Fairfax Counties, rather than the blue collar, rural areas to which Democrats hope he will appeal. That Virginians could not get excited about either candidate, much less the more “electable” Jim Webb, spells trouble for his campaign against Allen.
The apathy for Webb may have been a matter of his past: a registered Republican, a Reagan appointee, an affirmative action opponent, and even a George Allen supporter in 2000. But if he is good enough for Kos and John Kerry, he will satisfy most party stalwarts.
Webb’s real problem isn’t the Jim Webb of the past, but the Jim Webb of today. He is a poor campaigner atop a poor campaign, earning him the moniker among some Virginia blogs, “The Worst Campaign Ever.” First, the campaign: it missed the Federal Elections Commission filing. An on-time filing is small, but easy — the minimum for a competent campaign. Its lone mailing looked like a comic book page and earned it charges of Jew-baiting. It was a dumb mistake, and a problem it didn’t need.
Without campaign mistakes, the candidate is poor enough. At Shad Planking, an easy-going venue perfect for meeting constituents and practicing those campaign skills, he withdrew to his own tent with his own band. He made little effort to talk to anyone but his campaign staff and his buddy, former Rep. Ben Jones, “Cooter” from The Dukes of Hazzard. Webb’s lack of glad-handing may be a refreshing departure to some, but a decent candidate at least likes people. People skills are essential not only for winning over voters, but also for raising money. Reportedly, Webb loathes making those phone calls.
And the “x” factor for the campaign trail: Webb’s temper may rival John McCain’s. After a televised debate with Harris Miller in Norfolk last month, Webb got so testy that he had to tell Miller to “shut your mouth.”
Robert Barnes captured Webb’s amateur status well yesterday in the Washington Post,
But what Democrats have at this point is more a resume than a candidate….On the stump, he can be hesitant and uninterested in domestic policy questions. He hates the demands of fundraising — “odious” is what he calls the process — and it shows; he has not been very successful at it. Some find his rawness appealing while others just find it raw.
Practically speaking, as Barnes suggested earlier in the article, Webb is probably nothing more than a time and money distraction for George Allen. As a fresh and genuine face in Virginia politics — and assuming he learns to seem friendly — Webb might have a chance, particularly since he’ll no doubt continue to enjoy glowing media coverage.
But the appearance of a perpetual liberal also-ran, Leslie Byrne, on his victory stage Tuesday night indicates that the wacky left will adopt him as its own. The blogs already have, as evidenced by the Daily Kos’s celebration of his victory. And since Webb has no charisma of his own, the Schumers and Kerrys will dominate his message.
Webb may have time to improve, but now he is in the major leagues — his chance for accelerated learning just ended.