David Cox | The Warner Effect

While the chattering class has nattered over the Palin Effect in this month’s elections, less mentioned has been the Warner Effect. That is because, first, it affects Virginia. Venture outside the Commonwealth and even Democratic Convention-watchers might say, “Warner who?”
As well, we Virginians have gotten rather used to Mark as well as John. The words “Senator Warner” will roll as smoothly over our gracefully-accented tongues as they have for the previous 30 years.

But let not familiarity breed ignoring Mark-not-John’s accomplishments. For what he did in getting elected in 2001 and governing so well in the four subsequent years not only led to his own smashing senatorial victory, but also to Tim Kaine’s, Jim Webb’s, and even Barack Obama’s wins in the Old Dominion: They may have been tighter, but these Democrats won nonetheless. All three, especially now soon-to-be President Obama, owe him big time.

Just recall: Because ideology prevailed in Richmond, Jim Gilmore in 2001 handed a financial mess to Mark Warner along with the keys to the Executive Mansion. Republicans, in brief, had ceased to govern effectively (leaving for others to debate whether they ever did), so Virginians gave a Democrat a chance. He faced a Republican legislature. Four tough years later, the budget was in surplus, the treasured Triple-A bond rating was secure, and Virginia was dubbed “best” in government management, as a place to do business, and as a place to raise kids. The Democrat demonstrated that Democrats would govern without the sky falling in.

With his centrist approach, his business savvy, and his newly-demonstrated political skill, Mark Warner made Virginia a safe place for Democrats. More than that, he made voting for a Democrat politically, even (in some places) socially acceptable.

Since no Virginia governor may now immediately succeed himself, Warner’s surrogate won the closest we have to a re-election in the person of Tim Kaine in 2005.

Boosted by the Warner legacy, and benefitting from George Allen’s loose lips, Jim Webb squeaked through to the United States Senate in 2006.

Memories of Mark helped give Democrats control of the state Senate plus a few more House of Delegates seats in 2008.

This month, Mark Warner personally reaped the reward of his gubernatorial efforts by demolishing his virtually unlamented predecessor, Jim Gilmore, by nearly a 2-to-1 vote (3-to-1 in Lexington). Off he goes to the U.S. Senate.

So while it may be too much to say that Barack Obama rode Warner’s coattails in turning Virginia blue for the first presidential election since 1964, I believe the Warner Effect helped him win, too.

For one thing, Warner had set a standard of public management that allowed Democrats in Virginia to be trusted at the wheel. Those Dems know how to govern. We here learned that lesson before, arguably, the rest of the country.

For another, Warner got a lot of people used to voting for a good candidate, even one who carries the party ID of (shudder) Democrat. Sufficient elections have passed for the bodies of dearly departed family members to stop turning in their graves—or, perhaps, for those souls to be smiling at how the ensuing generations have returned to the old family tradition of voting.

In other words, Warner made it OK for Virginians to vote for Democrats. At least sometimes. But this was one of those times when Virginians largely did, for President, for Senator, and for the three who snatched Congressional seats from Republicans.

In another few weeks, Virginia’s annual political season will begin again. The Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General positions will be at stake, along again with the whole House of Delegates. We shall see what influence the Warner Effect holds next year.

I’m sure the new Senator will be in the thick of the fray, making sure we all remember.

 

Column by David Cox

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