Sen. Mark R. Warner’s biggest challenge in his re-election bid may not be his Republican opponent Ed Gillespie, but President Barack Obama’s plummeting approval ratings.
Consequently, the Democrat has not made any joint appearances with the president of late. For example, when Obama made a trip across the Potomac River into Virginia on Tuesday, pushing his plan to fix the Federal Highway Trust Fund in McLean, Warner was a no-show. His spokesman said he was tending to Senate business.
And in a recent interview in Richmond, Warner dodged a question about whether he would welcome Obama to join him on the stump this year.
“I’m going to win or lose this race based upon Virginia voters’ assessment of who I am, what kind of job I have done for them as governor, and as senator. I’m not going to predict who is going to campaign when or where,” he said.
Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political science professor at University of Mary Washington, said it is wise for any Democrat running in a statewide election in Virginia to “distance himself from an unpopular president.”
A recent memo to donors by the Virginia Progress PAC, indicated concern within the party over Gillespie’s fundraising capabilities and the Republican’s strategy to tie Obama and his health care law to Warner.
“The senator has voted with President Obama 97 percent of the time,” the memo says, echoing a popular GOP talking point.
But Warner decries Republican attempts to redefine him as a liberal this way. “We all know people can mess with statistics in any way they want,” he said, citing a number of areas where he disagrees with president.
“Whether it was (the) Keystone (pipeline) or tort reform, whether I was much bolder on entitlement and tax reform than the president — there are significant places where I have broken with the president. A lot of the legislation that I am working on, I’m not sure that the president would support (it).”
Farnsworth said that Warner, an entrepreneur who made millions from a telecommunications business, is well advised to tout his ability to work across the aisle.
“Warner has always presented himself as a bipartisan compromiser, back to his days as governor. When he argues that he is a centrist and is trying to work with Republicans, he has a track record to suggest that this not some sort of election-year conversion,” Farnsworth said.
When his four-year term as governor ended in January 2006, Warner left Richmond with a 71 percent job approval and a record of working with Republicans in reforming Virginia’s tax code and in capping state car tax reimbursements to local governments.
Warner won his 2008 Senate bid defeating Republican Jim Gilmore by 65 to 35 percent. The Democrat’s reputation as a moderate — he once described himself as a “radical centrist” — helped him sweep into the Senate, where he became part of the “Gang of Six,” a group of Republican and Democratic senators who drafted a bipartisan plan to address debt and deficits.
In 2012, the National Journal found that Warner was the ninth most conservative Democrat in the Senate.
And Warner said his advantage is that Virginia voters know him and his willingness and ability to compromise, which he says still produces results in the Senate — in spite of a political climate of increasing partisanship where compromise has become a bad word.
“It’s hard in both parties — and even harder as a Republican today,” Warner said.
Sixteen former elected GOP officials recently endorsed the Democrat — including John W. Warner, his predecessor and a 30-year veteran in the U.S. Senate.
Republicans belittled the list of Warner backers from their ranks. Virginia GOP chair Pat Mullins called it a “carbon copy of Terry McAuliffe’s list from 2013,” made up of “people who share Mark Warner’s love of higher taxes.”
Warner said he always tries to find a Republican co-sponsor for his legislative proposals — at least for those that are easy for both parties to agree on.
In 2010, Obama signed into law Warner’s bipartisan Government Performance and Results Modernization Act, which required federal agencies to report how they are spending money.
In May, the House and Senate unanimously passed Warner’s DATA Act — legislation that requires federal agencies to publish their spending data in a standardized, machine-readable format to make public access more transparent.
But a key issue in the campaign will be Warner’s support for the landmark measure that has divided the country — the Affordable Care Act.
“This is possibly Mark Warner’s weakest spot, because Republicans will emphasize every chance they get those areas of agreement between him and the president,” Farnsworth said.
Gillespie tirelessly highlights that Warner cast the deciding vote for Obamacare. In contrast, the Republican vows to repeal it entirely. But Warner doesn’t budge.
“I don’t think we are going back to the days where people with pre-existing conditions couldn’t get health care, women were discriminated against certain health care or kids couldn’t stay on their parents’ policies if they are over 26,” he said.
“But are there things that should be changed in Obamacare? Absolutely.”
In March, Warner introduced his own idea for a partial overhaul of the health care law that would offer lower-cost coverage options for consumers, set up a process to allow coverage plans to be offered regionally and across state lines, and ease unnecessary reporting requirements for employers. He called it the Copper Plan.
Critics say Warner’s fixes came too late — strategically delayed in time for an election year roll-out. Warner said he first wanted to see how the Affordable Care Act worked.
“I thought it was important to see where the real problems are with this legislation and then lay out very specific changes to it,” he said.
Warner doesn’t shy from admitting when he has been wrong.
Take his previous support for a balanced budget amendment, which he called for during his first, unsuccessful Senate bid in 1996. Later, as a U.S. senator, he voted against it. Why the flip flop?
“I actually had to govern,” he said. “A balanced budget amendment for most candidates is an excuse not to give a real plan on how you’re going to get to a balanced budget. It’s a political sound bite that does nothing,” he said — a snipe at his Republican opponent, who has repeatedly called for such an amendment.
His four-year term as Virginia’s governor was “a lesson of the practical world,” Warner said. “I would not call California or New York — states that have balanced budget amendments — fiscal circumstances that I’d want Virginia to have.”
Gillespie spokesman Paul Logan said that despite what Warner says about balancing the budget, the Democrat has voted for $7 trillion in new debt.
“After saying he wouldn’t vote for health care reform that takes away the coverage that we like, he rallied support for Obamacare and now he would keep it and tweak it, rather than replacing it with policies that work,” Logan said.
“He says he’s a ‘radical centrist’ but votes 97 percent of the time with President Obama — more often than the Senate Democratic average.
“Mark Warner has given President Obama a blank check. Ed Gillespie’s economic growth agenda would be a check on President Obama’s job-killing policies,” Logan said.
A March poll put Warner ahead of Gillespie by 46 percent to 31 percent. Gillespie had not yet received the Republican nomination. The survey also gave Warner a 55 percent approval rating, lower than during his years as governor.
Warner says he takes Gillespie’s challenge seriously.
“It’s going to be very interesting,” Warner said. “The idea that a career lobbyist with clients like Enron, that’s got a Dick Cheney world view and who loves to claim that he is a partisan warrior is somehow going to be a solution …,” he said, chuckling.
“If Virginians think that more partisanship is the solution to Washington, Ed Gillespie is the guy. We let the voters decide,” Warner said.
Libertarian Robert Sarvis also is seeking the Senate seat.
The Democrat’s name brand and deep pockets give him a significant advantage over Gillespie, said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
“Warner is a known quantity and something of a comfortable shoe for many Virginians and key state interest groups; Gillespie is known only by a relative handful of GOP activists at the state and national level,” Sabato said.
“Gillespie has to fill in the enormous blanks about himself at the same time as he’s undermining Warner’s two-decade-old image. He has a much tougher job than Warner, who will be spending millions to define Gillespie before the Republican has a chance to do it himself.”