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Chris Graham: Mark Warner and his 2014 Senate contenders

Is U.S. Sen. Mark Warner vulnerable in his upcoming 2014 re-election race? A poll commissioned by a conservative website suggests he may be.

warnerThe Washington Free Beacon, which most of you have never heard of until now, hired the polling company inc., which is run by former Newt Gingrich political advisor Kellyanne Conway, to test Warner’s vulnerability. The website touted a topline finding that Warner would defeat a generic Republican candidate by just five points, 50 percent to 45 percent, but it doesn’t take much digging inside the numbers to see that the poll also had a lot to favor Warner.

Warner’s job approval rating was 58 percent in the poll, with 37 percent disapproving of his job in the Senate. The poll also tested Warner against a slew of potential GOP contenders, and only one, attorney general candidate Mark Obenshain, was within 10 points of the incumbent.

The poll also found that the current attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, fresh off his defeat in the governor race to Terry McAuliffe, was the overwhelming choice of Republican voters to be the 2014 Senate nominee, even as Cuccinelli would trail Warner in a head-to-head race by 13 points, 53 percent to 40 percent.

Tellingly, the poll didn’t include the outgoing two-term Republican lieutenant governor, Bill Bolling, among the possible choices for the GOP nomination. A recent column on the conservative blog Bearing Drift suggested that Bolling might be the “other option” against Warner.

“A GOP bent on winning would look at Bolling and think he’s not only their ideal candidate, but also their only chance against Warner,” wrote columnist Norman Leahy, as he listed the reasons that Bolling may also not be looked at by Republicans as their ideal candidate, including that he backed the Bob McDonnell bipartisan compromise, that he pointedly didn’t work on behalf of the Republican ticket in 2013 due to his personal rivalry with Cuccinelli and that he favors (shudder!) Medicaid expansion.

“The faults are many, and the case against him running for anything ever again is strong. But he would be an intriguing alternative,” Leahy writes.

Intriguing, indeed.

A wild card could be 2013 Libertarian Party gubernatorial nominee Robert Sarvis, who received 6.5 percent of the vote to finish a distant third in the governor race.

Sarvis is publicly mulling a run for the Senate seat in 2014, though he’s not going to do much more than be a third wheel again, and likely would have much less impact in 2014 in a race featuring a popular Warner and a viable Republican challenger than he did in 2013 against the mildly received major party candidates McAuliffe and Cuccinelli.

The safe bet at this point is that you won’t see Sarvis, Bolling or Cuccinelli in 2014. Warner, even in a year that may turn out to be quite favorable for Republicans nationwide, if the bungled rollout of the Affordable Care Act isn’t reversed quickly and with finality, is not especially vulnerable in Virginia, and it would be foolish for anybody with plans for a political future after 2014 to go down as Warner’s sacrificial lamb.

The best Republican candidates would be best advised to begin campaigning like it’s 2017. We may still be a few weeks away from Day 1 of the McAuliffe administration, but it’s looking already like the T-Mac years are going to be tumultuous, and the next gubernatorial cycle is going to be ripe for the picking for whoever on the GOP side ends up getting the statewide nominations, at the top of the ticket and on down.

 
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