With the Republican race to replace retiring Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) shaping up to be a bloody battle, Democrats are hoping that their dream candidate, former Gov. Mark Warner, will soon turn their nominating contest into a mere coronation.
Leading up to the retirement announcement by Virginia’s senior Senator last week, state and national Democratic leaders had been touting the possibility that the well-liked former governor could again run for the seat he narrowly
lost 11 years ago.
Since John Warner’s announcement, several Virginia political insiders said they would be surprised if Mark Warner chose to pass on the Senate seat this time, even though his name has been floated as a viable vice presidential prospect in 2008 and Virginia’s election law would allow him to make another gubernatorial run in 2009.
One Democratic party source said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) has been in “frequent” contact with Mark Warner in the past few months about a Senate bid, and the source noted that the man who almost launched a 2008 presidential bid last year now has “the right of first refusal for [the Senate] seat. And if he runs, it’s highly unlikely any other Democrat would run.”
Monica Dixon, a senior adviser to the former governor, said Wednesday that her boss intends to make his political plans known sometime “within the next week or so.”
Some longtime Warner watchers may be surprised if the Democrat seeks the Senate seat. Although he spent about $10 million of his own money on his 1996 losing campaign, he more recently has expressed some relief that he did not upset Sen. Warner, saying he has come to feel more comfortable in an executive role.
But people who know Mark Warner well say a Senate bid makes sense for him at this point in his political career.
Steve Jarding, Warner’s campaign manager during his 2001 gubernatorial run, said he has advised his old boss to make the jump to the Senate.
“He’s been a chief executive now,” Jarding said. “He knows that playing field and he performed well in Virginia. … He accomplished a lot. And I think that part of who Mark is is complete.”
When Mark Warner lost to John Warner in 1996, “there was a part of him who thought that [the Senate] isn’t the best place [for him],” Jarding added. “But that was then, and I think he has since then come a long way.”
Indeed, Mark Warner has come so far that he almost launched a 2008 presidential campaign, and some insiders have speculated that the 52-year-old former high-tech entrepreneur and philanthropist still has his eye on the White House.
Rhett Walker, a political consultant in Virginia who has been involved in numerous statewide political campaigns, said a Senate seat would not only improve Warner’s name recognition outside of Virginia, but also provide him with experiences that he couldn’t get serving in state office.
“Although the common wisdom has been that it’s better to run for national office as a governor, I personally think [Mark Warner] is looking at the trend that people are going to be demanding more experience on international and national defense,” Walker said. “Leading a trade mission in Virginia is one thing, but that is no substitute for getting true experience with international affairs and national defense, which you would be getting in the U.S. Senate.”
If Warner were to win the Senate seat in 2008, he would be up for re-election in 2014 and could use a second win to then springboard a presidential campaign in 2016. On the other hand, a Virginia gubernatorial win in 2009 would mean that Warner would end his second term as the Commonwealth’s chief executive in 2013, also in plenty of time for the 2016 election.
And then there’s the possibility of being named a vice presidential prospect in the 2008 election, which also could set Warner up for an eventual presidential run. But running for Senate in 2008 would effectively remove him from any vice presidential consideration.
“I think he’d be on anybody’s short list and would be a tremendous choice” for vice president, Jarding said. “But my own sense is that … Mark looks and says, ‘I’m not going to wait for someone else to make a decision. I need to make a decision for what I believe is in the best interest of those who I want to serve … and if that means that takes me off the [vice presidential] list, then so be it.’
“I’ve been in the business a long time,” added Jarding, a veteran political operative who currently works for Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.). “I believe that any time you put yourself in a situation where you make a decision based on what you predict somebody else might make you probably made a bad decision.”
Four-term state Del. Donald McEachin, who was the Democratic nominee for state attorney general when Warner ran for governor in 2001, said he would be “very surprised” if Warner did not make a Senate bid.
“As great a governor as he was, the vice presidential pick depends on a host of things mostly he has no control over,” McEachin said.
McEachin added that Warner is “a family man” who is acutely aware of how his political decisions affect his wife and teenage daughters, who live in Northern Virginia.
“I suspect that if it were easy to come back to Richmond, if it wasn’t so disruptive on his family life, if [his wife] Lisa was at peace with it, yes, I suspect he would rather be governor,” McEachin said. “But that is not the environment he finds himself faced with. … I think that on balance when he weighs his family considerations and puts those into the mix, the United States Senate is the place for him.”
If Warner opts not to run for Senate, former Lt. Gov Don Beyer is mentioned as a possible Democratic contender. Beyer, a wealthy car dealer from Alexandria, lost a 1997 gubernatorial bid to Republican Jim Gilmore. Other names being floated as possible Democratic candidates are Rep. Rick Boucher, state Sen. Creigh Deeds, who lost his bid in 2005 for state attorney general, and state Del. Brian Moran, brother of Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.).
But Warner clearly is the top choice.
“Mark Warner is one of the most respected leaders in the state of Virginia and would make an outstanding candidate for the Senate,” DSCC spokesman Matt Miller said.
Correction: Sept. 6, 2007
State Del. Donald McEachin was misidentified — he is serving in his fourth term.