Once the smoke from the debates had cleared, Sen. Mark R. Warner, D-Va., and Republican opponent Ed Gillespie took their fight to the airwaves.
They also planned to campaign with high-profile supporters in the homestretch. Warner planned weekend events with former Sen. John W. Warner, the Republican who held the seat for 30 years; Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Attorney General Mark R. Herring, former Rep. Rick Boucher, D-9th; and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.
Ann Romney, wife of 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, will join Gillespie, GOP 10th District congressional nominee Barbara Comstock and former Sen. George Allen for an election-eve rally Monday night in Sterling.
Gillespie has narrowed the gap in his bid to upset Warner, but the Democrat led among likely voters by 51 percent to 44 percent in a poll released Friday by Christopher Newport University. Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis was at 2 percent, with 3 percent undecided.
Warner is asking Virginians to rehire him for a second term. But Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and adviser to President George W. Bush, has gained momentum since Warner was drawn into a scandal involving the resignation of former state Sen. Phillip P. Puckett, D-Russell.
The controversy was a welcome October surprise for Gillespie that gave him fodder for attacks on Warner. In the past two weeks, the Republican needled the Democrat in several television ads on a number of wide-ranging issues — including Warner’s role in the Puckett affair, Warner’s recent silence on the Washington Redskins name controversy, and his support for President Barack Obama.
Warner countered with positive spots highlighting his bipartisan record, but he also went negative in three spots, blasting Gillespie’s past as a Washington lobbyist and partisan operative.
Warner’s clear advantage in the money race — he has spent $4.4 million on ads, not including support from the liberal Virginia Progress PAC that bought airtime for an additional $2 million — helped him keep his name on the airwaves and mostly kept his opponent on defense.
Gillespie temporarily reduced his television ads, even pulling them in some markets — until an $86,000 cash infusion from former Gov. Jim Gilmore’s super PAC and a $435,000 loan to the campaign from Gillespie himself reanimated his campaign.
Data from the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity show that in total, Gillespie has spent $3.5 million on ads with just $260,000 more coming from outside groups.
Gillespie’s latest surge of television spots is unlikely to sway a race in which Warner is the clear front-runner, said Stephen J. Farnsworth, political science professor at the University of Mary Washington.
“The Gillespie campaign has been effectively run, and they used their money wisely. But polls still show a significant advantage for Mark Warner,” Farnsworth said.
“It’s not because Gillespie has done anything wrong,” he said. “It’s simply because Mark Warner is such a well-known figure in Virginia and he’s had such a longtime identification with centrist politics.
“The biggest problem the Gillespie campaign has always had is that most Virginia voters are not sure of what to make of him. To win a Senate race, you have to be a somebody.”
Since announcing his bid in January, Gillespie has worked tirelessly to change that. According to his campaign, he has clocked more than 55,000 miles on Virginia roads and has made more than 1,100 campaign stops.
Warner traveled 62,000 miles for his re-election bid and made 117 campaign stops in October alone, his campaign said.
Within the last week, Gillespie has traveled extensively, speaking to supporters from Tappahannock to Winchester, Woodstock, Abingdon, Chesterfield County, Richmond and half a dozen other localities across the state.
The Puckett matter
Once the first reports on Warner’s involvement in the Puckett scandal broke on Oct. 10, Gillespie tried to capitalize on it, suggesting that Warner may have “played politics with a federal judgeship” in an effort to keep Puckett from resigning.
Puckett abruptly resigned from the state Senate in June at a critical time in the fight over the state budget and Medicaid expansion. His resignation paved the way for Republicans to take control of the state Senate and thwart the governor on Medicaid.
Del. Terry G. Kilgore, R-Scott, head of the state tobacco commission, says he and Puckett discussed a potential staff job. Puckett says his main motivation was to pave the way for the legislature to consider his daughter, Martha Ketron, for a full-time juvenile court judgeship.
Warner suddenly had found himself in the spotlight of the scandal over allegations that he had discussed the prospect of a federal judgeship for Puckett’s daughter, during a June phone conversation with her brother.
After a final candidates debate in Richmond three weeks ago, Warner briefly talked with reporters, stressing that while he had reached out to Puckett’s son, Joseph, and brainstormed about possible opportunities for his sister, he never offered Ketron a job. He has not elaborated on this matter beyond these statements.
In spite of Gillespie’s attempts to gain ground amid the controversy, Warner’s role in the scandal is unlikely to become a game-changer in the race, Farnsworth said.
“The Puckett issue is not likely to have a major impact on the campaign,” he said.
The Obama effect
Consequently, Gillespie continues to tie Warner to Obama’s policies, specifically the Affordable Care Act, which Warner supported. “Mark Warner has voted with President Obama 97 percent of the time” became the Republican’s campaign mantra.
While Warner had called last year’s rollout of the health care law “a disaster” that required fixes, he has also reiterated that the Affordable Care Act provides for numerous popular benefits. Earlier this year, he introduced legislation that includes a lower-cost health coverage option for consumers that would set up a process to allow coverage plans to be offered regionally and across state lines.
Gillespie, who has run on repealing the entire health care law, has waited until late into his campaign to roll out his own plan to replace the ACA. It would give a tax credit to everyone who buys health insurance in the individual market, among other market-oriented measures.
The Republican said his proposal would reduce insurance premiums, enhance access to doctors, and increase the number of people with private insurance, but critics said it would roll back many consumer protections guaranteed under the ACA and increase premiums in the long run.
Yet Gillespie’s plan goes beyond what most Republicans running to take over the Senate are proposing.
“We know that the stakes in this election are high and that changing Washington starts with changing senators,” Gillespie said in an email last week.
But while the overall momentum favors the GOP, political analysts believe Virginia’s Senate seat up for election this week will remain in Democratic hands — pointing to the lack of outside money pouring into the campaigns here.
“The main challenge that Gillespie has always had is that Republican donors and activists think their time and money would be better spent in Arkansas, Louisiana or Iowa,” Farnsworth said.
For Warner, a Republican takeover of the Senate might even help raise his national profile and give him the opportunity to outgrow his niche. With fewer Democrats occupying the upper chamber, Warner would almost certainly gain seniority.
His record as a bipartisan deal maker — Warner founded the Gang of Six, a bipartisan group of senators that introduced a comprehensive budget plan — might also help him.
“We have to get back to the notion that in America that when we see a problem, we come together and fix it and then we move on to the next problem. That is the most quintessential aspect of America,” Warner said in an email last week.
If Gillespie does not prevail but loses his Senate bid by single digits, it might still mark a personal victory because it would raise his profile beyond that of a skilled fundraiser and partisan operative, keeping him in play as a viable future candidate.
“The Gillespie campaign may just be like the Mark Warner Senate campaign of 1996, where he does better than people expected — and that puts him in the conversation for future opportunities within the party,” Farnsworth said.
In 1996, a largely unknown Mark Warner took on Republican veteran Sen. John Warner and lost by just 5 percentage points. John Warner went on to serve two more terms and retired in 2009 after 30 years in the Senate. The younger Warner’s failed bid still opened doors.
“Mark Warner came relatively close, and then he was on the fast track to a gubernatorial nomination,” Farnsworth said.