It has been a while since Senator Mark Warner (D-Virginia) was in a position to sincerely worry about his political future.
Warner - Virginia's senior member of the U.S. Senate - is a former governor and often mentioned as a potential candidate for president. But before he can set his sights on any type of future, or perhaps grander prize, the now veteran politician has to accomplish a goal he has never been forced to attempt: getting re-elected.
Warner was unable to run for re-election as governor and even though it seems like he has been a Virginia political figure for some time, this is the first time he has ever been forced to defend his seat in the Senate. At 58, he remains an ambitious man with plenty of energy. He continues to mix it up in the halls of the U.S. Capitol on some of the most difficult and contentious issues. It hasn't always been easy. He has said in the past that the looming federal debt, and the problems associated with it, have "kept him up at night."
After briefly toying with the idea of running again for Governor of Virginia, Warner is going full bore into his campaign for re-election. It is a race that won't be on the ballot until next year, but something he and his political allies are treating as if the vote was happening tomorrow.
"My boss always runs like he is ten points behind," said Kevin Hall, Warner's long-time director of communication. "But he has always felt doing his job well is the best campaign strategy."
He may be focused on the day-to-day work in Washington, but that doesn't mean Team Warner isn't laying the ground work for a vigorous defense of his seat, and the best example of that effort is fund raising. Of all 2014 incumbents seeking re-election to the Senate, Warner's piggy bank is the second-most flush. He currently has $4.2 million in the bank. To put that in perspective, Warner's cash on hand rivals both candidates for Governor of Virginia, who are actively running right now. That doesn't include the senator's own vast wealth. According to his 2010 financial disclosure, his net worth is anywhere between $65.7 million and $283.1 million, making him the fourth-richest member of congress.
Part of the reason they have been so aggressive in fund raising is because the rules that govern campaign finance in Washington are much different than in Richmond. While candidates in Virginia can solicit donations of any size as long as they disclose their source, the most an individual can give a candidate at the federal level is $2,600.
It also is smart to keep a lot of money in the bank in a post-Citizens United world, where independent groups with a partisan bend can raise millions from secret donors and use those funds to attack.
The Warner team has also been very active connecting their message with key constituencies. They have farmed the e-mail list of fellow like-minded Democrats and have exponentially expanded his reach on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Even though the traditionally media-friendly Warner continues his cozy relationship with newspaper and television reporters across the state, he has shown a willingness to break news on new forms of media where a buzz can spread quickly.
The most obvious example of that outreach is when Warner announced he was switching his stance on same-sex marriage, revealing the flip on his Facebook page. This was before any kind of formal public statement or traditional press release. Warner was on the front end of Senate Democrats who moved on the issue. The post announcing his new position on the issue garnered 730 comments, nearly 800 "shares" and more than 3-thousand "likes."
Getting the job done
Warner has always been an effective communicator, but has long believed you need to have something of substance to say to make that communication worthwhile. It was easy to point to results when you control the day-to-day work of entire state government, but Warner has not been shy about voicing his frustration about the glacial pace of enacting real change as one member in a fickle body of 100.
"It's no newsflash that sometimes the Senate frustrates me," Warner told me back in October of 2012. But despite that frustration he believes he is starting to make some headway with these issues that aren't often sexy, but he believes are important.
He has introduced bipartisan legislation on government efficiency called the DATA Act and was front and center on the controversy involving military sexual assaults. He also has zeroed in on numerous Virginia-specific bills like one that focused on things like Chesapeake Bay accountability, a bill he recruited Republican Rep. Rob Wittman to partner on. He introduced a bill with the Virginia Delegation to clear up often murky Native American tribal recognition and in a move that put his fellow Democrat Terry McAuliffe in a tight spot, he and Sen. Tim Kaine introduced a bill to begin the process to explore offshore oil and gas drilling.
That work is in addition to his role on powerful commitees like the Senate Banking and Budget Committees. He also serves on the Select Committee on Intelligence.
Each and every time he submits a piece of legislation he finds a GOP partner, a necessity to get anything through the Senate because the body's rules require a 60-vote super majority to guarantee anything being passed. The Senate currently has 52 Democrats, 2 Independents who caucus with the Democrats, and 46 Republicans.
Popularity remains strong
Perhaps the most formidable aspect of any Mark Warner re-election bid is his enduring popularity with Virginia voters. Despite being a member of one of the least popular entities in the world, Warner consistently posts as strong favorability numbers of any politician in America. Several polls taken since January consistently show him with an approval rating over 50 percent and fending off any hypothetical Republican challenger.
Warner's team credits his tight connection with the Virginia voter to his relentless travel of the state. When the Senate is not in session, Warner is usually on the road filling his days with meetings with local leaders and business officals and doing countless, generally friendly, local media interviews. His travel is not reserved to just the big population centers like Richmond, Roanoke and Virginia Beach; he is often popping up in the Southwest and in small far-flung towns, holding meetings with only a handful of people.
His travel is also not just reserved to the time he is out of session. Warner benefits from living and representing a state that borders Washington and will often schedule night-time meetings with groups in the increasingly-important Northern Virginia region. It is not something too many other members of the Senate have the ability to do.
Warner's staff will often push out videos like this, that show his work on the road:
Warner isn't the only statewide leader to keep such a rigorous travel schedule, but for many years his trips across the Commonwealth stood in stark contrast to his Senate colleague Jim Webb (D), who did not spend much time outside the beltway.
No clear threat
Despite all of his money, all of his outreach and his drive to stay head of the game, Warner may benefit the most from the fact that there is no serious opposition on the horizon. Even though Republicans currently hold all three statewide executive branch offices, a clear majority of Virginia's House seats in Congress and have a number of former statewide elected officials without much to do, the party does not appear to have anyone seriously interested in a challenge to Warner.
Governor Bob McDonnell was long considered to be that challenger, but the last few months have been damaging to his legacy. McDonnell, who not long ago was considered to be a potential Vice Presidential nominee or even candidate for President, has been hurt by the Star-Scientific scandal. Even though McDonnell remains generally popular among Virginia voters and has a long list of accomplishments from this past legislative session, every head-to-head match against Warner shows the Democrat on top.
Every indication is that McDonnell is ready to take a breather from elected politics. He told the AP's Bob Lewis that after two decades of continually running or serving in public office, it might be time for him to take a step back.
"After literally 37 years — as an Army officer, as a prosecutor, a legislator, attorney general, as governor — I don't know whether I would think about another office in the future anyway," he said. "I have been looking at several options, whether it's the private sector or doing some charitable work."
The timing might be right. A grand jury is considering charges related to the Star Scientific scandal, and while there has yet to be a direct conclusive link to any wrong doing, the constant bits of information related to the story would be a drag on any campaign for Senate. A campaign which would need to start almost immediately after he left office - if not before.
After McDonnell, the Republican field thins out quite a bit. The next logical challenger would be Lt. Governor Bill Bolling, who decided to pass on a convention challenge to Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli for the GOP nomination for governor. Bolling has coveted the executive mansion, but has won statewide office twice by comfortable margins. That record alone would make him an attractive candidate for Republicans.
Ibbie Hedrick, a Bolling spokesperson, said the lieutenant governor is not plotting a run, but did leave open the possibility that a campaign for Senate co1uld be in his future.
"When his term is over, he looks forward to phasing back into the private sector and hopes to find a way to continue his focus on economic development and job creation," said Hedrick. "While he would not rule out a potential run for public office at some point in the future, he has no plans to do so at this time.”
But Republicans caution that just because there is no candidate immediately front and center, that doesn't mean one won't emerge. Many argue that forcing a candidate into the race early without embarking on a thorough search is an old way of thinking. At any point an independent group, not affiliated with a specific candidate, could begin a campaign against Warner, essentially softening him up before the GOP settles on a someone.
Brad Dayspring of the National Republican Senate Campaign Committee rejects the notion that a quality candidate can't be found or that Warner is invincible.
"Much to his chagrin, Mark Warner is going to face a tough challenge, which is probably why he's been telling colleagues he'd rather be Virginia's Governor than its Senator," Dayspring said. "Our research has already revealed that Warner keeps a lot hidden from folks in Virginia, so we are looking forward to a healthy, open, and robust campaign in the Commonwealth."
Despite representing a national organization, Dayspring has unique insight into Virginia. He is the one-time communications director for Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Henrico).
Assuming Warner wins re-election, few people believe he will be comfortable forging a long-term career as an elder statesman in the U.S. Senate. He has flirted with a run for President before and he is often listed among people considering a run for President down the road, perhaps as early as 2016. Warner is not at the top of many of those list, almost all of which begin with Hillary Clinton. However, it is still early and his work is enough to catch the attention of the many journalists who track each and every 2016 prospect.
The same polls that have consistently shown Warner popular with Virginia voters have also shown that most are not keen on the idea of him taking the next step to a White House bid. But the verteran Warner knows as well as anyone that a front runner today could be out of the running tomorrow. Timing is as important as anything and being prepared to take the next step could be vital to a run for a higher office.
Republicans continue to push the idea that Warner is just biding his time in the Senate, waiting for the right time to make a bid for the White House.
"(The) truth is Mark Warner fancies himself as a future President," said Dayspring. "But he's just a closeted liberal who works overtime to keep that hidden from voters in the Commonwealth."
And just like 2016 is an uncertainty, 2014 is no guarantee. It is clear that Warner and his team remained focused on the challenge directly in front of them. There is still work to be done and without a successful re-election, all of his plans for the future won't matter.
After the jump we rundown potential Warner opponents:
Bill Bolling - With McDonnell out of the picture, Bolling is the next logical choice. A two-time statewide winner, Bolling is generally liked and has staked out relatively new moderate-Republican ground that might be beneficial in a run against someone like Warner. His statewide name recognition would help him get a good start fund raising and he is still itching to stay involved as evidence from his frequent contribution to the race for governor despite his decision to pass on a challenge to Ken Cuccinelli. The biggest problem Bolling may face may not be Warner but his own party. Bolling, once considered to be a hard-core conservative, is now on the outs with the right wing of the party. It also won't help that the GOP is set to nominate Warner's challenger in the same fashion that pushed him out of the race for governor, a convention instead of a primary. Bolling's spokesperson Ibbie Hedrick said he "would not rule out a potential run for public office at some point in the future."
Mike Farris - Best known for his advocacy for homeschool families across Virginia, Farris has been on a statewide ballot before. He ran for lieutenant governor on the same ticket as George Allen. He has continued to keep a high profile with conservatives and made a very public endorsement of Pete Snyder during the run up to the Republican convention. Farris would have a tough time winning a primary, but would be well suited in a party convention. He is giving serious consideration to a run but no formal decision has been made.
Pete Snyder - Snyder is still smarting from his ill-fated run for the lieutenant governor's nomination but is still filled with ambition. The wealthy entreanpeneur could pose an interesting challenge to Warner with his combination of business experience and conservative values. Snyder is currently serving as co-chair of finance for the Cuccinelli for Governor campaign.
Rule this group out:
Eric Cantor - No one doubts Cantor's ambition, but few believe he has any interest in a statewide run. He continues to amass power in the House of Representatives and if he has eyes on a prize it would be the speaker's seat. Running and winning a Senate seat, where he would be a minority member with no seniority, would actually make him less powerful than he is now.
George Allen - He made it clear after falling short in 2012 that his days running for office are behind him. He is still keeping a moderately public profile, but it is unlikely we will see Allen on a ballot again.
Wait until after 2013:
Ken Cuccinelli - What if Cuccinelli is unsuccessful in 2013? He will still have an immense national profile and will be able to draw funding from big groups across the country. He may want to go right after elected office again with a challenge to Warner. No doubt it would be a tough proposition, given he'd be coming off of a big loss, but not unfeasible. There's no question, though, that losing is not something the Cuccinelli camp is even entertaining.
E.W. Jackson - If it is one thing the current nominee for lieutant governor likes to do, it's run for office. He has already shown his ability to win in a convention, which is how the next Senate nominee will be picked. Losing by big margins has never stopped him before. Even if Jackson wins, don't be surprised if he toys with the idea of challenging Warner.
Ben Cline - No one has ever mentioned Del. Cline as a statewide candidate, but it seems like he is building a resume that would fit pretty well into a campaign. He is a leader of the powerful House of Delegates Conservative Caucus, but isn't afraid to team up with Democrats to get things done. He and Scott Surovell were the first to introduce legislation to increase the penalities for distracted driving.
Susan Stimpson - It seems to me that Stimpson's entry into the statewide political arena was never designed to end after one tough defeat at a convention. The consensus among people at the event that Stimpson was the second choice of many of the delegates that went with Jackson. She is beloved by Tea Party voters and is impressive on the stump. If the GOP is looking for a distinct alternative to Mark Warner, there is no question that she can provide that perspective.