U.S. Senate: The radical centrist will shake things up in D.C.
Story by Chris Graham
I was working for an ultraconservative newspaper based in Charlottesville – not exactly the best place for somebody who would later become the chair of a Democratic Party committee to be, but it paid the bills. It also gave me a different perspective on Mark Warner, at first a skeptical one, as I covered his 2001 gubernatorial campaign, and his pronouncements about being a fiscal conservative, and then as we launched The Augusta Free Press in 2002, and we heard the drumbeat toward that 2004 budget reform or tax increase or whatever you want to call it depending on your political perspective.
And then it hit me – the maturity, that is, that the hardest-core of my hardcore ultraconservative Republican friends will probably never achieve. Not only must we pay our bills, but we just can’t arbitrarily cut core services at the risk of our transportation-infrastructure and public-safety present and our educational future to enforce an artificial line-item fiscal stability.
Which is to say, I not only came around to Mark Warner’s way of thinking, I came around to the Warner approach of being a Virginia Democrat, so much so that I put my business and journalism career in possible jeopardy by seeking the chairmanship of the Waynesboro Democratic Committee earlier this year with the goal in mind of refashioning it as a base for a Mark Warner-style political makeover of the Shenandoah Valley.
Yep, that’s right, I’m one of those radical centrists, though I have to admit I snickered a bit when I first heard Warner use the term at an event at James Madison University in January. “My goal, if I can get hired for this position, is not just to go up there and be more one vote for the Democratic Party, but to go to the United States Senate and try to actually put together – and this will sound perhaps a little naive, but it’s what I hope to do – put together a group of eight, ten, twelve senators, bipartisan senators, that would try to create a new radical centrist bloc in the United States Senate,” Warner told a room full of JMU students on a cold weekday afternoon, launching a rallying cry, if labeling yourself a person in the middle of the two extremes can truly be radical, that would define his Senate campaign.
And as I ask the question, Can it really be considered radical to play the center against the right and left wings?, I think the answer in this day and age of the polar opposites ruling the day in American politics is not only an unequivocal Yes, but if we’re ever going to get our country back on the right track, it’s going to take more Mark Warners than our Mark Warner to reach out to the ideologues on both sides to try to find a common ground that we can all agree at least in part on.
Warner clearly has that magic touch. I was in Harrisonburg last month at an event that I eventually dubbed “Republicans for Warner” that featured endorsements for Warner from the likes of former Republican General Assembly leaders like John Chichester and Vincent Callahan and Pete Giesen that were all rooted in that same theme. “We’ve got a problem in Washington. It’s huge. And who do you look for? You look for someone who’s tried, someone who’s tested. You need someone who’s been on the firing line. Doesn’t make taking the shots, doesn’t mind calling the shots and making the tough decisions and implementing. The only person I can think of in this campaign to do that is Mark Warner,” Chichester said. “The true test of a political leader and someone serving in public office is how they react in a time of crisis. And Mark Warner inherited a crisis in Virginia, and he confronted it with a sense of statesmanship, but most of all, he was able to work both sides of the aisle, and that’s something missing in recent years, both in Virginia and at the national level. To get Democrats and Republicans together to craft a package to get us out of a hole is something that if he had not done, we’d all be in trouble,” Callahan said. “We need in this country to reach out and be economically independent and know what we’re facing in a world market. He understands that. I’m not sure that his opponent does. And like Clinton, I think that his opponent sometimes gets too ideological even for some of us Republicans,” Giesen said.
That opponent would be Jim Gilmore, himself a former Virginia governor and 2008 presidential-nomination candidate who on paper would be expected to mount something of a challenge to the popular Warner if only because of his impressive resume that includes a stint running the Republican National Committee and heading up an antiterrorism commission in Washington, D.C. But Gilmore almost didn’t survive the Republican state convention in June, barely beating back the intraparty challenge of Northern Virginia State Del. Bob Marshall to win the GOP nomination, and he’s barely gained traction with voters in the polls, consistently running 25 to 30 points behind Warner in the summer and fall.
It’s still hard to figure that Warner will run up the kind of margin that is being suggested in the polls, even as he has the support of a coalition of Democrats, moderates and a sizable number of Republicans. “I think it’ll be tighter than the polls are showing, but then anything over 55 percent would be an incredible victory,” Virginia Tech political-science professor and WSLS-NBC10 political analyst Bob Denton told me. “Remember, in this decade 51, 52 percent has been where people win in terms of this state. So if he can pass the threshold of 55 percent, that would be an historic win, not only for anyone running in Virginia, but even more so for a Democrat,” Denton said. “I don’t expect it to be a 25- to 30-point win for Mark Warner, but it’s going to be an unprecedented victory for Warner, and I say unprecedented victory because I’m not sure that we’ve had a U.S. Senate race between two candidates who had held statewide office, who had been governors, who had that kind of credibility, with this kind of working margin,” Christopher Newport University political-science chair Quentin Kidd said. “If Warner wins by 12 points, 15 points, it’s just going to be a blowout, and it’s going to be a final repudiation of the Gilmore years in Virginia, and a final stamp of approval on the Warner years,” Kidd said.
I don’t want us to go that far, mainly because I think we’re just getting started as far as those Warner years are concerned. Warner has already redefined what it means to be a Virginia Democrat, and with his star turn as the keynote speaker at this year’s Democratic National Convention, which if you remember was what launched Barack Obama in 2004 to within hours of being elected president at the time of this writing, the message is being spread beyond the Blue Ridge and Appalachians now.
Which leads me to this rather radical concept – Virginia once again as the Mother of Presidents. Warner in ’16. Are you with me?