Opinion

Is Mark Warner seeing dangerous numbers?

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Virginia,Michael Barone,Analysis

I couldn't help noting that Mark Warner, the Democratic senior senator from Virginia, was one of the six Democratic senators calling for "hardship exemptions" for people finding Obamacare insurance policies too expensive, and also one of the 13 Democratic senators who co-sponsored the bill imposing tougher sanctions on Iran if, after the six months of negotiations under the not-yet-final interim agreement, it doesn't agree to certain conditions.

Barack Obama has bowed to the six senators on Obamacare, further unraveling his premier legislative knitwork, but has suggested that the sanctions bill sponsors are only interested in electoral politics.

I wonder whether Warner isn't seeing some bad poll numbers. He was elected governor by just a 52 percent to 47 percent margin in 2001, but emerged after his one term (Virginia doesn't permit incumbent governors to run for re-election) with a glowing job rating, which helped him win his Senate election in the very Democratic year of 2008 by a 65 percent-to-34 percent margin over his predecessor as governor, Republican Jim Gilmore.

Most observers have assumed that Warner is a cinch for re-election next year, and the fact that Democrats won all three statewide offices — governor, lieutenant governor and, by a hair, attorney general — this year, his prospects have been looking very good.

But Virginia is not a safe Democratic state; it's our current national bellwether, voting closer to the national average than any other state in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. And there has been talk that Ed Gillespie, former Republican National Committee Chairman, might run against Warner for the Senate.

Warner has a reputation as a moderate, and in interviews he's shown some skepticism about some Obama policies. But he did cast the 60th and thus the deciding vote for Obamacare (the same can be said of any of the 60 Democratic senators). And both Obamacare and the administration's Iran agreement are getting negative responses in national polls — and, thus, are likely to be getting a negative response in the bellwether of Virginia.

There's no assurance that Gillespie or any other serious Republican will challenge Warner. Gillespie may not run, and he might not be nominated if Virginia Republicans select their nominee by convention (as they did in 2013) rather than in a primary. Hard-shell conservatives may rebel at the idea of a Bush loyalist like Gillespie. But if he were the nominee, he would likely be well funded, and he has a pleasant personality and demeanor, as well as a command of the issues that is comparable to Warner's.

For Warner, bad numbers would not mean that he is running behind anyone (as Arkansas Democrat Mark Pryor is in a recent Republican poll) or running even with a challenge. Bad numbers for Mark Warner would be running significantly below 50 percent against a lesser-known challenger running farther behind. Such numbers would indicate that Warner, who has had every reason to expect he will win a second term without breaking a sweat, could have a competitive race.

If so, he's made smart moves by seeking hardship exemptions from Obamacare and seeking tougher sanctions on Iran, and by appearing on Bret Baier's "center seat" on Fox News's "Special Report with Bret Baier" last Thursday. Those moves will help if he has a competitive race and might deter a serious potential challenger like Gillespie from running.

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