Uphill battle: What Jim Gilmore needs to do to have a shot at upsetting Mark Warner

Story by Chris Graham

So you’re Jim Gilmore, and you’re running for the United States Senate.

You’ve served as a state attorney general, running the biggest law firm in the state for four pretty solid years.

You’re a former governor who won election by a comfortable margin over a two-term Democratic lieutenant governor in large part by promising to eliminate the car tax.

You were the head of a commission named after you that examined homeland-security issues before 9/11.

You’ve got law-enforcement bona fides, you’re a tax-cutter, you have foreign-policy experience.

And you don’t seem to have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning in November.

What do you do to try to get things moving in the right direction – the right direction, incidentally, being the one that doesn’t have you losing by 20 points to your successor, Mark Warner, Virginia’s political golden boy?

“The impression that I got from him was that he was going to do two things. He was going to criticize Warner for not being a true conservative and for going back on his campaign promises, in particular the no-tax-increase promise that Warner made. And in the process of doing that he is also simultaneously going to defend his car-tax package and his approach to governing,” said Christopher Newport University political-science professor Quentin Kidd, who talked with Gilmore about his 2008 election strategy earlier this year.

University of Mary Washington political scientist Stephen Farnsworth offered his thoughts on the Gilmore dilemma in a February op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Farnsworth told me that his take is that Gilmore will have to follow what appears to be his instincts on the matter and play aggressively.

“When you’re 20, 30 points behind in the polls, the only thing you can do is get really aggressive really early,” Farnsworth said. “Of course, it runs a great risk of backfiring. People get really upset at what they see as negativity in politics. So it may not help all that much, but you don’t have a lot of options when you’re far, far behind.”

And then you have to consider that it would seem at first glance that the issues that are likely to have our attention after Labor Day – and I can foresee the economy and the war in Iraq being the two most dominant matters demanding the time and energy of those who would represent us in Washington – are only going to play to Warner’s strengths.

Farnsworth and Kidd both see some potential for Gilmore to exploit economic issues, in particular, to his political advantage, though both concede that it will take an awful lot of spinning for Gilmore to end up on top on that.

“The one thing I think Republicans have been able to use effectively against Democrats in Virginia is voter anxiety over possible tax increases,” Farnsworth said.

“I suspect that if the economy continues to slow, and if the state continues to have to adjust its revenue forecast, Gilmore will try to tie some of that to the management of the state under the Warner administration – the bad policies sort of coming home to roost,” Kidd said.

“Having said all of that, I’m not sure any of that stuff is going to work. Because what Gilmore is in a position of having to do is reframe the context of a debate years after the frame has been set already. And that’s really hard to do. It’s almost impossible to do. I would think there would have to be something dramatic happen that would make voters rethink the way Mark Warner governed,” Kidd said.

And that would be a neat trick, to hear Kidd tell it.

“The debate is framed in such a way that Mark Warner already has a large majority of support. So Gilmore’s job is not only to hit Warner, but to hit him in such a way that he convinces people to change their minds to vote for Gilmore – convinces Warner voters to change their minds and vote for Gilmore. And that’s really hard to do – short of a scandal, for example, or short of a reframing of history, a complete reunderstanding of history. And I don’t see that – because if we were going to reunderstand history, I think we would have already done that,” Kidd said.

A scandal, of course. Can you say Macaca?

“My read on Mark Warner as a candidate is that he is much more scripted than George Allen. George Allen was very much more a shoot-from-the-hip politician, and he was usually very good, but not that one day in Southwest Virginia,” Farnsworth said, recounting the now-infamous incident at a 2006 campaign rally in which former governor and senator George Allen used an obscure racial slur to refer to a Jim Webb campaign volunteer in a moment that turned a sure Allen Election Day win into what became a most bitter defeat.
“I think that Warner is a way-more-cautious candidate than George Allen. And a George Allen today would be a lot more cautious than the Allen of ’06 because of what’s happened. And so not only does Mark Warner, and all the candidates running in this election cycle, learn from George Allen and act more carefully, but also I think Mark Warner’s temperament himself makes him a more cautious and centrist messenger,” Farnsworth said.


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