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Last updateThu, 19 Nov 2015 8pm

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Does Gillespie have a chance against Warner

Is Mark Warner vulnerable this year? Most political observers assume that he’s not, but that doesn’t mean that this fall’s contest between Warner and his Republican opponent, Ed Gillespie, isn’t going to be lively. Warner clearly, at this point, has a massive advantage going into the election. According to a Washington Post poll, he leads Gillespie by 56% to 37%. That’s an almost insurmountable edge. However, off-year elections, when voter turnout is low and often anti-administration feeling at its highest, have had their share of surprise results.

Warner’s position is enviable, but that doesn’t mean he’s worry free. One concern is his favorability rating. It’s not what it used to be. When he left the governor’s mansion in 2006, his approval rating was more than 70%. People liked his moderate image and his seeming ability to work with both Republicans and Democrats. However, and this was probably inevitable, as a U.S. Senator, it has been harder to avoid the negatives, whether justified or not, that go with a being a Member of Congress. Congress’ approval rating is about 7%. That’s slightly lower than the number of people who support a communist revolution. So, with that kind of dissatisfaction, even someone as popular as Warner is liable to suffer guilt by association. Over the past eighteen months, his favorable rating has gone from 58% to 51%. The conventional wisdom is that as long as your favorable rating stays above 50%, you’re in good shape. But, that 1% margin is kind of slim.

Warner also faces the problem of being a national Democrat. That doesn’t hurt in a Presidential year, particularly the last two, when the Commonwealth went decidedly for President Obama. But, as was shown in 2010, a lot of those voters that helped Obama didn’t come out to support Democratic Congressional candidates two years later. Republicans are hoping and planning their media campaign around tying Warner to Obama. They want to dissociate him from the moderate, even independent image many voters have of him, crafting him, instead, as being foursquare in support of the President and in particular, Obamacare.

Surprisingly, however, Ed Gillespie isn’t running as hard a hitting campaign as many expected. And while trying to stay out of the culture wars, lest he be branded a fringe candidate, he is nonetheless making an appeal to social conservatives. He needs their help. He made it a point to express his dismay with the recent court ruling, which deemed Virginia’s laws on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. But, that said, there isn’t much in his rhetoric to fire the conservative base.

When it comes to money, while Warner has outraised Gillespie, the GOP candidate has still managed to put together a sizable sum, and with his many national connections, getting more probably won’t be that difficult. That will buy lots of airtime all over the state, which will be handy, but so far, just what his message is, and how he is going to persuade voters to vote for him and not Warner, isn’t as clear at this point as many of his supporters had hoped.

There is one thing to remember about Virginia. While many southern states keep their Senators for decades, mostly out of deference to their seniority, Virginia can be fickle. Chuck Robb lost his seat in 2000, and George Allen was defeated in 2006. And if the GOP conservative base had its way, the esteemed John Warner would have been dumped in the 1996 Primary. Fortunately, a number of Democrats, including myself, went out and voted for him. But the bottom line is that we don’t mind voting against the incumbent. Both candidates this year are well aware of this.

One factor in this race will be demographics. Mark Warner, while still popular in a number of generally Republican areas, nonetheless will, like all Democrats, be counting on a big vote in Northern Virginia. The most recent opinion survey shows him with at least 63% of the vote in the region. If he can hold that and get people out to vote in sufficient numbers, and that’s the challenge, winning in the fall won’t be that hard. But, Gillespie, while struggling, might yet find his stride, and this race, currently looking like a walk away for Warner, might start to get interesting.

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