Political Hay

Mark Warner’s Choice

Democrats hope that the popular former governor will help them gain another Senate seat in Virginia. But will he run?

By 9.10.07

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In the wake of Republican Sen. John Warner's retirement announcement just over a week ago, focus has shifted away from the Senate maverick to another outside-the-mold Warner of Virginia politics -- Democratic ex-Gov. Mark Warner.

Speculation has been rife for months that if Sen. Warner declined to run for re-election in 2008, the former Governor would step into the ring. However, over Labor Day weekend, Mr. Warner made clear that he is weighing at least two options: running for Senate (as anticipated), or running for Governor again (less so). A third option has also been mentioned: joining the 2008 Democratic presidential ticket in the vice-presidential slot.

Any and all of these possibilities must be tempting to Mr. Warner, who left office in 2006 with a 72 percent approval rating, according to SurveyUSA. After all, he has made clear that he's interested in running for something big again, and soon, commenting to a crowd in Newport News over Labor Day weekend, "My hope and prayer is that sometime in the next few weeks I may be able to come back to y'all as a job applicant." But, the buffet of political choices nonetheless presents Mr. Warner with a conundrum.

On the one hand, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, is eager to sign Mr. Warner on as the Democrats' candidate for the 2008 Virginia Senate race. Over Labor Day weekend, on ABC's This Week, he said he hoped that Mr. Warner would run and praised him as "outstanding," and "just exemplary."

Mr. Warner would likely fare better in the race than would current Gov. Tim Kaine, who has also been mentioned as a potential candidate (Mr. Kaine's approval rating currently stands at a rather low 54 percent). Ditto that for Virginia Reps. Rick Boucher or Bobby Scott, whose names have also been thrown into the mix, but who are significantly less well-known across the Old Dominion. But while Mr. Schumer may be angling for Mr. Warner to step into the ring -- his ring, specifically -- a look at the ex-Governor's background suggests that spending six years in the U.S. Senate just may not be his style.

Prior to his election as Governor, Mr. Warner helped to found Nextel, and then venture capital firm Columbia Capital. That suggests a flair for the executive -- and that like his fellow former Virginia governor, ex-Sen. George Allen, the deliberative, stuffy Senate could end up boring him. For a man who seems to like running things, not debating and taking orders from his colleagues, the smart money is on him taking a serious look at running for Governor again.

Virginia law limits gubernatorial terms to one at a time. But, with Mr. Warner's political heir, Mr. Kaine, due to finish his term in January 2010, there is nothing that would prevent Mr. Warner from stepping into the ring again in 2009 to reclaim his old job. However, the question is, for a man who looks like he's itching to get back into elected office, can he wait that long? And what will he do in the meantime?

This consideration probably tips the scales towards a Senate run. However, with his name still in the mix as a preferred vice presidential candidate in 2008, Mr. Warner might just be able to have his cake and eat it, too.

With Sen. Hillary Clinton currently polling 16.8 percent ahead of her nearest rival, nationally, according to the latest Real Clear Politics average, and ahead by a noticeable margin in most early primary state polls, the current presumption is that she will be the Democratic nominee. The probability of that outcome will feature heavily in Mr. Warner's decision-making, with his name remaining at the top of the veep-nominee list.

Certainly, adding Mr. Warner to a presidential ticket would be a smart move for Mrs. Clinton. Yes, he did raise taxes on a bigger scale than ever before seen in Virginia, relying on disarray amongst Republicans to get the hike through. But he also scored better than five of his fellow first-term governors, including one Republican, and eleven second-term governors, including six Republicans, on the CATO Institute's 2004 Fiscal Policy Report Card on America's Governors (19 first-term, and 6 second-term, governors scored better than Mr. Warner). That makes him look more moderate than Mrs. Clinton, who despite all of her efforts at centrist positioning in the Senate, is still perceived as being of the far left by much of the electorate.

But would a Clinton-Warner team work? When Mr. Warner withdrew his name from presidential consideration last year, there was speculation in Democratic circles that Mrs. Clinton forced him out of the race. What is certain is that last year, Mrs. Clinton's assistants sought to smack Mr. Warner down after he commented that she "couldn't win" (without him on her ticket, he might just be proved correct).

In light of that apparent rivalry, the smart money has to be on Mr. Warner not banking on a vice-presidential nomination. And that, combined with his evident desire to get back into the political ring and quickly, suggests that a Senate candidacy on the part of the other Mr. Warner will be forthcoming.

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