Next on the Mark Warner agenda: Is former governor, White House candidate ready to again be a player on Virginia political scene?

The Top Story by Chris Graham

 

Mark Warner made it a point to tell Virginia politics reporters covering the final year of his term as governor of the Old Dominion that he really felt he was hitting his stride in the job – and while the focus of their editors seemed to be on whether or not he would enter the 2008 presidential race, they shouldn’t rule out the possibility that they might see his name on another ballot a year later.

With Warner now out of the running for the White House, the commentariat is abuzz with speculation about what Warner’s next move might be – and whether he may be thinking about another four years in the governor’s mansion.

“That is the real story. There are a couple of things that we all know – anyone who pays attention to this know that he really liked doing what he was doing in the governor’s mansion, and he really felt like he was doing good things. He was trying to make sure that state government provided the services that it had to provide to citizens in the right way – and he felt like he was doing good. We also know that he felt like he didn’t have enough time – because in the first two years of his administration, he was trying to deal with budget crises, and so he felt like he only had the last two years to try to get anything accomplished,” Christopher Newport University political-science professor Quentin Kidd told The Augusta Free Press.“I think he not only enjoyed being governor, I think he was very good at it,” said Steve Jarding, a Harvard University public-policy professor who served as the campaign manager on Warner’s successful 2001 gubernatorial effort.

Warner was prohibited by the Virginia Constitution from running for re-election in 2005.

“He saw that he could accomplish some things, and he saw that he could do it in a bipartisan way. He wasn’t intimidated by the fact that the Democrats weren’t in control of the legislature. He has to look at that and say that in four years, we actually, as difficult as it was, got some things done. But there are still some agenda items that Mark didn’t have a chance to address and try to accomplish because of the limit of being able to serve only one term that he would still like to try to accomplish. So I definitely think that running for governor would be in the cards again – and if he ran, he would clearly be the frontrunner,” Jarding told the AFP.

Warner, of course, had been considered, if not the frontrunner, then certainly one of the top two or three contenders for the ’08 Democratic Party presidential nomination. But after a 10-month exploratory campaign in which he made public appearances in 28 states and five foreign countries, Warner decided against making a formal run for the nomination.

“Late last year, I said to Lisa and my girls, ‘Let’s go down this path and make a decision around Election Day.’ But there were hiring decisions and people who’ve put their lives on hold waiting to join this effort. So about a month ago, I told my family and people who know me best that I would make a final decision after Columbus Day weekend, which I was spending with my family. After 67 trips to 28 states and five foreign countries, I have made that decision. I have decided not to run for president,” Warner said in the Oct. 12 news conference in Richmond in which he made public his decision.

“This past weekend, my family and I went to Connecticut to celebrate my dad’s 81st birthday, and then we took my oldest daughter Madison to start looking at colleges. I know these moments are never going to come again. This weekend made clear what I’d been thinking about for many weeks – that while politically this appears to be the right time for me to take the plunge, at this point, I want to have a real life. And while the chance may never come again, I shouldn’t move forward unless I’m willing to put everything else in my life on the back burner,” Warner told reporters at the news conference.

The announcement had the attention of political observers up and down the line.

“I can understand and appreciate the difficult decision of my good friend, Mark Warner,” said Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat who served as lieutenant governor under Warner. “I’ve known Mark for more than 25 years, beginning as law-school classmates. During that time, my respect and confidence in his judgment, business skill, and political instincts have only grown.

“I was proud to work with Mark to produce results for Virginia, and while I looked forward to campaigning on his behalf across the nation, I respect his decision today. Our country is better for his willingness to engage in public service, and I look forward to supporting Mark and his family in whatever decisions they ultimately make about the future,” Kaine said in a statement.

“I’ve seen the governor a couple of times over the course of the past year. He’d spent more time in other states than he had in Virginia. In fact, I talked to him in Buena Vista on Labor Day, and he told me he’d gone on 60-some-odd trips out of state since he’d left the governor’s mansion. That’s just a brutal schedule to keep,” Attorney General Bob McDonnell said.

“I guess he felt like he gave it a good-faith effort for nine or 10 months as well as giving it time to assess the personal sacrifices that he would have to make to run – and just decided that he just wasn’t going to do it. I think the governor gave his reasons for that decision, and I certainly respect his decision,” McDonnell, a Republican, told the AFP.

“It was a surprise,” Mount Solon Republican Sen. Emmett Hanger said. “I felt that the way he was positioned right now – his business interests are very strong, so I knew that he didn’t have to spend time with his business in order to make a living right now – it appeared to me that he really had nothing to lose and everything to gain by going ahead and at least engaging in an exploratory effort.

“The reason that he cited for not wanting to go forward was family – and I can certainly identify with that. Certainly, at state-level politics, I’ve had some of the same issues in the past. In fact, I had that kind of decision to make when I was approached about running for Congress once when my children were younger. So I can appreciate that,” Hanger told the AFP.

“It was a total surprise to me,” Weyers Cave Republican Del. Steve Landes told the AFP. “I can understand his reasoning from a family standpoint – but there could be other reasons than that. One of them could be the time commitment. But it could be that the Democratic Party, I don’t think, is as much a centrist organization as some people might want it to be – and I think Mark is more of a centrist, and maybe he also found nationwide that the party is more to the left than he is and is comfortable with.

“Mark is not as partisan as Gov. Kaine is showing himself to be. But when you’re running for president, that’s probably the most partisan thing you can do – especially when you’re going through the nomination process. And unfortunately, we’re seeing it this year with the campaigns across the country, it’s a very partisan battle – and maybe he just encountered that, and that could have been a deterrent to him moving forward,” said Landes, the chair of the Republican caucus in the Virginia House of Delegates.

“I’ve been fortunate to call Mark Warner my friend and my governor, and I was looking forward to calling him Mr. President. But I’m the father of two young children, and I know family comes first. I greatly respect the decision he made – he showed true family values,” Alexandria Democratic Del. Brian Moran said in a statement.

“I was hoping that Mark Warner would take our success in Virginia to a national stage that so badly needs his results-oriented message. Our country is hungry for the bipartisan leadership he brought to Virginia, and we are in desperate need of his hard work to put our country back on the right track. I was looking forward to being his first and most active volunteer and supporter,” said Moran, the chair of the Democratic caucus in the Virginia House of Delegates.

“It was a surprise to me. I, like everyone else, thought that since the guy was flying to Iowa and New Hampshire 60-plus times since leaving the governor’s mansion, he was seriously interested in running for president,” Kidd said. “I always thought he was raising money a little bit more slowly than I would have thought he needed to do – but I was comparing him to Hillary Clinton, who has $60 million right now. Compared to John Edwards and others, he was probably as competitive in fund raising as anybody other than Hillary.

“He was positioning himself to be sort of the anti-Hillary – the moderate who could appeal to Southerners, the moderate on social issues, the nonpolarizing candidate. He was going to have to compete with John Edwards and Evan Bayh and people like that to be that – but I think he had as good a shot as anyone at that because he was so successful in Virginia,” Kidd said.

There is a bit of disagreement on that point about Warner being a viable contender for the Democratic nomination in ’08, actually. Even as the second or third top contender in the field, he would have faced an uphill battle – and a steep one at that – to unseat Clinton, a United States senator from New York and former First Lady, from her perch atop the nomination field.

“Clearly, it’s going to be hard for anyone to overcome all the advantages that Hillary Clinton has at this point – but there is a strong argument for having a more moderate candidate, someone from the South, a governor, and Mark Warner was uniquely the best on-paper candidate for what the Democratic Party needs at the national level in order to be competitive in the Electoral College,” George Mason University political-science professor Mark Rozell said.

“The other side of it is whether primary voters in the Democratic Party would take those factors more seriously into consideration – particularly voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, where the polling data suggested that he was barely above an asterisk at this point,” Rozell told the AFP.

Also complicating things for Warner is that Warner and Clinton were seen by some observers to be competing for something of the same base inside the Democratic Party – the same base that propelled Bill Clinton, like Warner a former Southern governor, to the White House in 1992.

“If you look at the Democratic Party field, Hillary Clinton is running to the center, and John Kerry is running to the left of her – and then you’ve got a few other people deciding if they want to run.. Warner would have had to take on Hillary directly – and that didn’t seem plausible,” James Madison University political-science professor Bob Roberts said.

“He was way, way down in the polls in terms of name recognition – Kerry’s ahead of him, Hillary’s ahead of him, Edwards is ahead of him. So he didn’t seem viable unless he was willing to spend a lot of money and a lot of time with a fairly low chance of getting the nomination,” Roberts told the AFP.

Warner insisted at his Oct. 12 news conference that his decision was not made “based on whether I would win or lose.”

“I can say with complete conviction that – 15 months out from the first nomination contests – I feel we would have had as good a shot to be successful as any potential candidate in the field,” Warner said.

“As I have traveled the country, I have been amazed at what pent-up positive energy for change exists. In my speeches, I always acknowledge that what disappoints me most about this administration in Washington is that with all the challenges we face – and the tragedies we have experienced, from 9-11 to Katrina – that the president has never rallied the American people to come together, to step up, to ask Americans to be part of the solution,” Warner said.

“I think a number of our party’s potential candidates understand that. I think, in fact, we have a strong field. A field of good people. I think they’re all hearing what I heard: that Americans are ready to do their part to get our country fixed,” Warner said.

Virginia Tech political-science professor Bob Denton is among those who feel that Warner had as good a shot as anybody to win the 2008 Democratic Party presidential nomination and the general election that autumn. Denton is also among those who are wondering aloud if there isn’t more to Warner’s decision than meets the eye.

“He was widely seen as being in the top five, with some seeing him as high as the top two or three – with Hillary Clinton always being in the top spot. He was receiving good press, certainly was being taken seriously. He was receiving national coverage. So for it to be this sudden, and at this time – why not after the election, why not after the first of the year – it was very surprising,” Denton said.

“Something about this announcement, the way it was done, the timing of it, it doesn’t pass the smell test, as you journalists say. His staffers were blown away, had no idea – it caught them by surprise. Even the ones closest to him – they did not suspect that there was any doubt,” Denton said.

“The timing is very strange,” Denton told the AFP.

Jarding, for his part, takes Warner at his word as far as the reasons that he cited for deciding against making a run at the presidency.

“This was something that he looked at very hard,” Jarding said. “He’s someone who’s a very detailed person. He was putting together a strong organization. I think he understood the money that it took, and he did all the preliminary work. So in that sense, it was a surprise. But from a personal standpoint, not so much.

“Mark has three teen-age girls at home, and he’s been on the go pretty strong – there was a year and a half where he was running for governor, and then four years as governor, and then the last year running around the country. I suspect that at some point you come here, you see your girls, and you say, Whoa, they’re getting away from me, they’re getting older, and I haven’t spent enough time with them. So in that sense, it’s not surprising,” Jarding said.

“There’s never a good age to be gone as a parent – but I think the teen-age years are probably the toughest. These are very genuine issues for families – so he had to weigh that with Lisa and the girls. I’m sure that they ultimately told him, If you want to do it, do it. But I think he stepped back and said, I’m 51 years old, and I’ve got plenty of things I can still do, including running for national office if I choose. I’m just not going to do it now and keep my options open for down the road,” Jarding said.

Kidd also takes Warner at his word – and thinks that Warner’s decision to bow out of the race for family reasons is “emblematic of the exact kind of people that I think Americans want in public office.”

“I think his value system is what people want the value system of elected officials to be. The irony is that the very reason he steps out is the very reason why I think a lot of people would like him and want him to be the party’s nominee and possibly the president – and that is that family is important to him, his daughters are important to him, his wife is important to him, and he could still have a life and not be president. I think a lot of people want that – because so many politicians seem to try to live their entire life to be elected to the next highest office, and they don’t seem to have a core center,” Kidd said.

“Everyone who knows Mark Warner has always known that he’s a family man. When he was governor, he would go on these goofy vacations that normal people go on – mountain biking in a national park and breaking his wrist falling over the handlebars on his bike. That’s the sort of thing that normal people do. That wasn’t poll-tested. He was there because that’s where his family wanted to go, and in his busy schedule, that was what he could do in the little bit of time that he had,” Kidd said.
“I’m sure there were strategic questions there – like, Can I raise enough money, what are my odds of winning? But in the end, I don’t think those drove his decision. I think what drove his decision is, Do I have the support of my family? And how important is this in relation to my family?” Kidd said.

The question on everyone’s mind relative to Mark Warner and his political future is – what’s next on the Mark Warner agenda? Warner hinted that he has something in mind at his Oct. 12 news conference, but certainly left the door open for speculation as to what that might be.

“My decision does not in any way diminish my desire to be active in getting our country fixed. It doesn’t mean that I won’t run for public office again,” Warner said.

“I want to serve, whether in elective office or in some other way. I’m still excited about the possibilities for the future,” Warner said.

“He’s definitely going to come back into politics in one capacity or another – he’s probably just buying himself a year or two to think about his next move,” Rozell said.

“I think the key ingredient in this is that by national political standards, he’s a relatively young guy – in his early 50s. He has plenty of time. He’s younger than Ronald Reagan was when Reagan was elected to public office for the first time,” Rozell said.

Roberts thinks it might not be too long before we see Warner back on the national stage.

“Dropping out of the presidential race now puts him in a position of becoming the heir apparent for the vice-presidential nomination – because he doesn’t irritate anyone in the nomination campaign. Typically in a primary battle, you have to be mean to somebody – which means you don’t get the chance at running for VP,” Roberts said.

Rozell agrees with that assessment.

“I don’t think he has harmed at all his prospects for being a vice-presidential nominee,” Rozell said. “It might even make it more likely that because he’s not campaigning for the presidency against a potential nominee such as Hillary Clinton that he could be an attractive candidate to balance the ticket. And he would seem to be the best person to balance a ticket headed by, for example, a Hillary Clinton.”

“At this point, if his motivation is what he said, it seems to me that he would still be very viable as a ticketmate,” Denton said. “Coming from what some people think as a red state, a Southern governor with experience, without a lot of political baggage, very popular, there’s really no downside to having him on the ticket – especially if the Democrats are going to use what we might call a Southern strategy.”

There is also talk that Warner could have his sights set on the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Republican John Warner.

“I think the blinking this time about running against Allen is because there’s still not certainty about whether this is John Warner’s last hurrah or not,” Denton said, referring to Mark Warner’s decision to forego a possible run at the suddenly vulnerable George Allen in this fall’s Senate election.

Which brings us back to the idea that another run for governor could be in the offing in 2009.

“One thing that we have to pay attention to is that he said he was going to help Jim Webb get elected. If he does that, he was already the 800-pound gorilla of Virginia politics, but if he’s able to pull Webb into the victory column, and he’s able to, say, help some moderate Democrats in the exurbs of Northern Virginia knock off some conservative Republicans, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he were to decide to run for governor again. I think that’s more likely than the Senate – because a Senate run would do what a presidential run was going to do to him in terms of taking him away from his family more than governor,” Kidd said.

Warner’s name on the ’09 ticket would no doubt be considered a blessing by Virginia Democrats – who have to be wondering right now whom they might be able to run against likely Republican gubernatorial contenders Bill Bolling, the sitting lieutenant governor, Bob McDonnell, the sitting attorney general, and Jim Gilmore, a former governor whose name has surfaced in recent months as a possible entrant in the ’09 race.

“The Democrats don’t have anyone in a high-enough office right now to go on for the statehouse. Right now, they would either have to go into Congress, or they would have to look at somebody like (Bath County senator and 2005 attorney-general-race loser) Creigh Deeds. But none of those have the same kind of name recognition as a Bolling or McDonnell or Gilmore,” Roberts said.

Should Warner run for the top job in state government again and win, he would be only the second Virginia governor to be elected by the voters to a second term in the state’s storied history. That fact in and of itself should be an indication of how tough it can be even for a popular governor like Warner to come back four years after leaving office.

“Four years is an awful long time. The fact that he might have left office with high rankings bears no relationship to what people might think four years later when issues and circumstances have changed,” McDonnell said.

“Virginians will have to make their decisions on his record if he were to run for some other office. But in my dealings with Mark Warner, he’s a straight-shooter, he’s a very smart guy, he was an accomplished businessman, and he did a fair job as governor,” McDonnell said.

“He left the governor’s office on a very high note, but being governor sometimes is dependent on circumstances around you – and those circumstances were not good for him initially. We were in the throes of a recession when he came in, revenues were not there. He had to work with the General Assembly to make some tough cuts,” Hanger said.

“He had some challenges there – but he was willing to jump on board with the tax reform, and I think that most people understood that that allowed the state to firm up its financial structure. And then of course as he was leaving office, more prosperous times returned, and there was additional money available at the end of his term to do some things that we had hoped that we would be able to do that we couldn’t afford to do prior to that – restructuring mental health and providing monies to localities to upgrade wastewater-treatment plants, stuff that’s not terribly exciting, but things in those areas that need to be done.
“The bottom line was he left office on a very high note. Certainly, he would be viewed as a steady hand if he were to come back in again,” Hanger said.

“I think a lot depends on the Kaine administration – and how well they do or don’t do. And they’ve had a rocky start,” Landes said.

“The thing I think is going to come back to really be a question for both Mark and the current governor is promising to do one thing and then doing something else. I don’t always have to agree with someone, but I like someone to be consistent and to do what they say they’re going to do. Mark got off easy from the standpoint that he raised taxes, and the debate is still going on about whether we had enough revenue or not. Obviously, the state coffers are overflowing at this point – and were after that tax increase. About a third of that was from the tax increase, and the rest was from the economy growing. I think we will go back to the debate about taxation – about what’s appropriate and what’s not,” Landes said.

“People seem to have forgotten that you’ve had two Democrats who have said during their campaigns that they will not raise taxes, and then they went and wanted to raise taxes. I think that’s a problem that they’re going to have from a political standpoint,” Landes said.

“Mark would be a formidable candidate to run against – there’s no doubt about that. He’s much more bipartisan or nonpartisan than Gov. Kaine has been. But it will have been four years – and people’s minds are short when it comes to politics. And things change very quickly,” Landes said.

 

(Published 10-23-06)

 

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