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Warner Touts GOP Endorsements in Bid to Burnish Moderate Cred

Sen. Mark Warner’s (D-Va.) announcement last week that 16 prominent Republicans have endorsed his bid for a second term is just the latest in his campaign’s effort to burnish his image as a moderate who’s willing to work with the GOP.

Warner, 59, faces former Republican National Committee chairman and GOP strategist Ed Gillespie, 52, in November’s election.

The Republicans endorsing Warner include former U.S. Sen. John Warner, who is not related to the current senator, former Gov. Linwood Holton, and a dozen or so former Virginia state delegates and senators.

“I have made it my priority to work across party lines [to accomplish] real reforms,” Warner said in making the announcement.

Through four years as governor in the early 2000s, and five more as senator, Warner has built a reputation as a moderate consensus builder who can easily work with members of both parties. And in Virginia, a politically diverse state that neither party has a lock on, it’s a reputation that Warner’s campaign wants to keep foremost on voters’ minds come November. That’s especially key for Warner, analysts say, given Gillespie’s goal of portraying Warner as a liberal lackey of President Obama.

“Ed Gillespie’s main campaign strategy so far has been to try to portray Warner as a member of Obama’s politburo, voting with the president nearly all the time,” explained Stephen J. Farnsworth, a professor and director at the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg.

But do inter-party endorsements really help a candidate over the course of a months-long campaign?

Yes and no, says Farnsworth.

“While endorsements tend not to matter all that much to most voters, they can affect campaign narratives,” he said, pointing out that it could shore up Warner’s image as a moderate and muddy the portrait Gillespie is trying to paint of the senator as a liberal Obamaphile.

“These endorsements undermine a key Republican argument against Warner,” Farnsworth said.

Some Republicans, however, say the endorsements could backfire on Warner. If voters take a closer look at the names of Republicans supporting the senator, they’ll see more than a few RINOs — Republican In Name Only — who are about as Republican as the president, some GOP leaders say.

“Really? This is what he’s got? This is Mark Warner’s list of ‘Republican’ endorsements?” Republican Party of Virginia Chairman Pat Mullins said in a statement. “This list is almost a carbon copy of [Gov.] Terry McAuliffe’s list from 2013 — and Barack Obama’s list from 2012.”

The roster of Warner’s GOP supporters is “made up of people who share Mark Warner’s love of higher taxes, and various other folks who more than likely haven’t supported a GOP nominee since Linwood Holton was governor,” Mullins added.

Holton, 90, served as the commonwealth’s chief executive from 1970 to 1974.

“I expected better from Mark Warner,” Mullins said. “But then again, so did the Virginians who voted for him.”

Whether Mullins’ counterpunch has legs remains to be seen. It’s true that most of those endorsing Warner are moderates who likely agree more with Warner than they do the conservative wing of the GOP.

But Farnsworth said the endorsements can work against the GOP, too, by highlighting the rift between the mainstream and conservative wings of the party.

“They … underline the significant differences within the RPV, between more conservative and less conservative factions,” he said.

Those differences were laid bare earlier this month when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) lost to a little-known and underfunded Tea Party-backed candidate in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District primary. That’s not a narrative mainstream Republicans, in Virginia or nationally, want perpetuated.

For Gillespie’s part, Farnsworth said the GOP candidate should all but ignore the endorsements.

“The smart move for Gillespie is to say as little about this as possible,” he said. “Talking about something more useful is always a good idea with today’s short attention span politics.”

Indeed, it seems Gillespie is doing just that.

“I respect them for their service to our commonwealth, and respect their right to support the candidate of their choice,” the Republican candidate said in response to the endorsements recently, before segueing into his main campaign theme. “Virginians will make their choice in November based on policies, and there’s a big difference between my plan for economic growth and Mark Warner’s down-the-line support of the job-killing policies of Harry Reid and President Obama.”

(For complete 2014 midterm coverage, get your campaign fix on The Grid.)