The Yin and Yang Of Virginia Politics (Richmond Times-Dispatch op-ed)

Richmond Times-DispatchThe Yin and Yang Of Virginia Politics
BY STEPHEN J. FARNSWORTH

Richmond Times Dispatch

February 19, 2008

The question troubling Virginia Republicans these days, when they divert their eyes from the 2008 presidential nomination campaign, is how the party can reverse a 30 percentage point deficit in the upcoming U.S. Senate race.

Old Dominion Republicans who fear what now looks to be a lopsided contest between former Gov. Mark Warner (D) and former Gov. Jim Gilmore (R) for an open U.S. Senate seat can remind themselves that miracles do happen. Just ask Jim Webb (D), the scrappy challenger who two years ago took on — and defeated — Sen. George Allen (R), then a heavy favorite for re-election and a potential GOP presidential front-runner for 2008.

Short of miracles, though, Republicans don’t have a lot of good options in their quixotic quest to make sure Democrat Mark Warner doesn’t replace Republican John Warner, who is retiring from the U.S. Senate after five terms.

Del. Robert Marshall (R-Prince William) is running an uphill race for the GOP nomination, hoping to capitalize on Republican anxieties over Gilmore’s poor poll numbers. Marshall has attacked Gilmore on the abortion issue, saying he is insufficiently pro-life. Republicans will decide on a nominee during a convention in a few months.

Neither Gilmore’s focus on tax cuts nor Marshall’s anti-abortion record seems likely to sway many voters next November. The top issues for Virginians looking to the 2008 Senate campaign, according to a statewide Washington Post survey last fall, were Iraq and the economy, the biggest concern of 17 percent and 16 percent of the state’s residents, respectively. Neither of those issues is likely to be all that helpful to a GOP candidate, given continuing voter negativity regarding the Bush administration’s policies in both areas.

Taxes were a top concern of only 7 percent of Virginians, offering little opportunity for Gilmore to dominate the general election discourse with that issue. Abortion was a top concern of only 1 percent, according to the survey, making Marshall’s signature issue even more of an afterthought to state voters.

Going up against a candidate as popular as Warner means waging a high-risk campaign for either Republican hopeful. More conventional strategies, such as pushing for greater turnout of partisan loyalists, can help turn the tide in a close race, but “get out the vote” efforts by themselves won’t be enough to close such a huge gap.

Money always helps a lagging campaign, but who knows if it is even possible for Gilmore, much less Marshall, who has never run a statewide campaign, to keep pace dollar-for-dollar with Warner, a highly effective fundraiser and an immensely wealthy individual in his own right.

As a result of Warner’s popularity and his personal wealth, Virginia Republicans can’t count on the national party to ride to the rescue, either. Many national Republican donors probably will bypass the Virginia race in favor of Senate races that the polls show are much closer.

Since Warner seems too cautious to selfdestruct as Allen did in a 2006 blaze of YouTube infamy, the GOP can’t depend on Warner to make a major misstep.
Instead, Gilmore, the likely nominee, will have little choice but to attack relentlessly, trying to redefine Warner as a tax-and-spend liberal who is Virginia’s version of the polarizing Hillary Clinton.

Of course, a highly combative approach matches Gilmore’s traditionally aggressive campaign style. (Marshall, in the unlikely event that he becomes the GOP nominee, is no shrinking violet, either). While negative campaigning can backfire and make the attacker seem nasty and petty, desperate circumstances — like being 30 points behind in the polls — require desperate strategies.

In short, the two former governors are the yin and yang of Virginia politics: one obsessed with short-term tax cuts, the other equally obsessed with long-term investments for the future. Years before they knew they would ever run against each other, sparks flew between these two. From the start of his gubernatorial term, Warner charged Gilmore, his predecessor, with fiscal malpractice. Gilmore fired back, attacking Warner as a tax-loving liberal out of touch with Virginia values.

Expect an explosive 2008 Senate race, Virginia. By November, we may consider the 2006 Allen-Webb wrestling match tame by comparison.

Stephen J. Farnsworth is associate professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington, and the co-author of “The Nightly News Nightmare: Television’s Coverage of U.S. Presidential Elections, 1988-2004.”