Mark Warner Has to Run for the Senate in 2008

Yesterday in the WaPo Tim Craig reviewed the political options facing former Virginia Governor Mark Warner-run for the US Senate in 2008, or run for Governor of Virginia in 2009.

I think Warner has to run for the US Senate seat. I think he would be happier as Governor of Virginia, but I think he has to run for the Senate because his ambitions are to go nationwide. And as corollary of Edward Santayana’s observation about repeating history, Warner’s choices and options are framed by previous actions by Virginia politicians.

Again, the key ingredient in all this is the assumption that Mark Warner wants to go nationwide. If he doesn’t, then he can run for Governor in 2009 and all is well. Let’s consider a few things…

National Aspirations: Chances for the VP nomination in 2008

I suggest these are slim. Had he stayed in the field, and shown his face to more folks as a candidate (as opposed to being an esteemed cheerleader for democratic candidates) then he may have gained more traction. The problem he faces is that heis a less than perfect ticket balancer for any of the likely democratic nominees:

a) Hillary Clinton-Balances her on gender and experience (federal v. state), but with her from NY and he from VA there is a distinct lack of geographic compactness. Plus he has shown he is more conservative than her, and I don’t have a good sense of how this plays.
b) Barack Obama-Again balances on experience type, but does not bring the length of service view to the ticket (one term as governor). However, the Illinois-Virginia geographic balance is better, but the ideology balance is uncertain.
c) John Edwards-Yet again balances on the fed-state experience, but fails the geography test badly.
d) Additional consideration on all three…Warner is borderline star power himself. Will any of these three want a VP who could grow to outshadow them? There are three VP models in the recent past: Reagan/Bush (VP wants the top spot, is willing to lay low to get it), Clinton/Gore (VP wants the top spot, and desire to get it causes tensions), and Bush/Cheney (VP doesn’t want to spot). Warner on a ticket has too much of an Al Gore feel to it, and I think whomever the Democrats select will want someone who is clearly going to back them up. BTW, much of item “d” reasoning applies to James Webb.

National Aspirations if not the VP Nominee in 2008

Mark Warner is in his early fifties.  It would seem that Warner would be better set for a national campaign in 2012 or 2016 if he could do it with the benefits of serving both in Washington and in Richmond.  This gives him governance credentials on both sides of the federalism equation, plus affords experience and a chance to build a limited record on national matters.  I stress limited as he will have been around long enough to create a record, but not long enough (a la John Kerry) to create a record with a large number of votes that could be targeted and exploited-which is one of the challenges of a US Senator who has been in office a long time to face on the campaign trail.

Nature of Past Candidacies

Mark Warner has always run as the outsider, both in 1996 against John Warner and in 2001 against incumbent GOP AG Mark Earley.  If he runs in 2008 he is again the outsider, either running as a democrat against the policies of the Bush administration and/or as the non-DC creature against Tom Davis (should he get the GOP nomination).  If he runs in 2009, he will not have that advantage. 

Warner had the benefit of vicious GOP nominating processes in both 1996 and 2001, offering up a weakened GOP candidate.  This likely helped him to a stronger than expected finish against John Warner in 1996, and certainly helped him defeat Earley in 2001.  The 2001 GOP contest will either yield a nominee who has survived a damaging nominating contest based in ideology (Gilmore v. Davis) or, if Davis defers, a nominee who I imagine Warner believes his record measures well against (Gilmore).  While the 2009 gubernatorial nomination will also be hotly contested, I tend to think it will be figured out much earlier and will be less divisive.  It’s just a feeling, perhaps because the likely candidates are all in the same general ideological/geographic spectrum.  The 2008 GOP contest will have much more clearly defined candidates on matters of ideology, experience, and geography. 

Again, it seems that the 2008 race will be much more to Warner’s liking.

Remember Paul Trible?

As I noted in a previous post, Warner will consider the example of Paul Trible in 1988/89.  Trible chose not to run for reelection to the Senate in 1988, and ran for the GOP nod for governor in 1989.  His decision to many seemed to center less in concerns for his family than in a fear of losing to Chuck Robb.  In 1989, Virginia Republicans chose not Paul Trible, who had never lost an election campaign.  Instead, they chose Marshall Coleman who had lost a statewide campaign in 1981 and a campaign for the Lt. Governor nod in 1985…perhaps because he was not seen as a guy who backed down when the party needed him.

Now the Virginia Democracy will never look down on Mark Warner if he runs for governor…but the national party might.  And if he passes on the Senate race in 2008, he faces the muttering down the road by activists in Iowa and NW and other places that when the national party needed him to run for the US Senate, he bailed and ran for governor instead.  Remember, the assumption is that his aspirations are national.

He has already disappointed a little bit by a somewhat premature withdrawal from the presidential nomination process, and I don’t know that he can take another even tiny hit, especially with the Demos in ascendance nationally and the likelihood of other bright lights coming to the fore.

The Two Term Dilemma

Almost all two term executives score their big stuff in the first term, it doesn’t matter if they are FDR or George Bush.  Second terms are almost always a let down or a holding pattern, and that is with the benefit of having eight years in office.  Things probably get dicier if you leave and come back.   Consider Mills Godwin, the only man elected to two four year terms as governor (1965 and 1973)…although his situation is more complicated because he was elected the first time as a Democrat and the second time as a Republican.  He got his big ideas out in the first term (Community college system, moving away from Pay as you go, expanded transportation spending), while the second term was a holding action against national tides (a nasty petroelum embargo) and domestic issues (the Hopewell Kepone crisis).

I think the whole feel of coming back in for a second term is uncertain, and he will be coming back as part of the establishment and not as a challenger…a feel that will be made more so if the democrats take one or both houses of the General Assembly in 2007 or 2009.

It seems that the whole stack of facts suggests that there is only one scenario that keeps him out of the Senate race in 2008-and that is if Tom Davis can get the GOP nod without opposition.  A whole Tom Davis, unscarred by a brutal nominating campaign, might be enough to keep Warner’s hat out of the ring until 2009.

Bottom line:

Is Mark Warner’s temperment more that of a governor than a senator?  Probably

Would he rather be Governor of Virginia than a US Senator?  Most certainly

Will he run for the US Senate in 2008 instead of waiting for 2009?  Almost certainly

Why?  Because it is the best path he has to achieve the goals and ambitions he has seemingly set for himself.


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