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Warner on the Defensive as Virginia Senate Race Tightens

Mike Foerster looked down at his coffee cup, slowly stirring its contents as he considered the question put to him a moment ago by a reporter. A Rockingham County farmer, Foerster, 58, had stopped off at Jess’ Lunch in Harrisonburg for lunch with friends one day last week.

Finally, with a resigned smile and a slow shake of his head, he answered.

“I don’t know. On the one hand, it’s no surprise really. I mean, it’s the government so what do you expect, right?” Foerster said of recent reports that 250,000 Virginians will lose their health insurance later this year, largely because of Obamacare mandates. “On the other hand, though, Mark Warner voted for it. He’s partly to blame. So if he’s gotta pay the piper for that, well then, so be it.”

Whether Warner, the senior senator from Virginia, pays with his job this November remains to be seen. The freshman Democrat, vying for a second term this fall, still holds a substantial lead over his chief rival, Republican Ed Gillespie, a former lobbyist and White House aide in the George W. Bush administration.

But that lead, which had been at 20 points or more in most polls just last month, has dwindled in recent weeks.

Earlier this week, Quinnipiac University released a poll of likely voters that showed Warner with just a 9-point edge over Gillespie.

On The Defensive

News of the pending insurance cancellations, as well as reports of the state’s $2.4 billion budget shortfall — one the Democratic governor blamed on military cuts stemming from sequestration — has put Warner on the defensive. The senator voted for sequestration in 2011 as part of a plan to slash federal spending. The mandatory, across-the-board budget cuts, which went into effect last year, have cost Virginia’s significant military-services industry thousands of jobs and millions in lost business.

“Mark Warner voted [to make] arbitrary and harmful cuts to our defense budget, which are proving devastating to Virginia,” Gillespie said during a campaign stop with Arizona Sen. John McCain at a VFW post in Norfolk last month. “And I don’t believe sequestration will ever be repealed as long as the Democrats control the majority in the United States Senate.”

Despite voting for the Budget Control Act to try to get Congress to move on much-needed spending cuts three years ago, Warner says he was always lukewarm on the plan. He has since criticized the plan, calling it “stupidity on steroids,” and says he has worked to limit the impact of the reductions and restore spending in key areas of national security and defense.


Gillespie has hit Warner even harder on Obamacare, repeatedly reminding voters that the senator “broke his promise” to voters by telling them back in 2010 that they could keep their insurance plan even with passage of the health care act. That promise — also made by President Barack Obama and most other Democrats during the health care debate four years ago — turned into a nightmarish liability for the party when insurance companies began sending out cancellation notices last year.

“Everywhere I go, I hear stories from fellow Virginians who lost the health insurance they liked due to Obamacare, many of whom are now paying significantly more for their coverage,” Gillespie said. “Obamacare is perhaps the greatest factor contributing to the squeeze felt by so many Virginians.”

Gillespie With No Plan?

But David Turner, Warner’s campaign manager, says Gillespie is long on criticism but short on details of how he would solve the problem.

“Gillespie still has not said how he would fix health care. Instead he would take us back to the days when families were denied health care because of pre-existing conditions,” Turner said. “Senator Warner is working to fix the law [with] more affordable options and [fewer] regulations. Virginians want a problem solver, not a partisan operative.”

The “partisan operative” description is meant to remind voters not only of Gillespie’s past as a Republican strategist, but also of Warner’s reputation as a bipartisan dealmaker.

But Gillespie says the incumbent isn’t the moderate he tries to make himself out to be. He has sought to tie Warner to the unpopular Obama and his policies at every turn, a strategy Republicans have employed in races across the country this year as they try to wrest control of the Senate and bolster their majority in the House of Representatives. It’s a strategy that appears to be working, in many races, at least. The GOP has to flip six seats to take control of the Senate and with five weeks to go before Election Day, most analysts think they’ve got a better than even chance to do it.

While Warner still leads in the polls, the smaller margin is proof, Gillespie’s supporters say, that their candidate’s message is starting to chip away at the incumbent’s seeming invincibility. The polls, they point out, not only show Gillespie making gains, but also indicate that his name recognition and personal approval ratings are up as well.

“I met [Gillespie] at a rally up in Harrisonburg and I like the guy,” Norman Trout, an Albemarle County roofer, said last week as he waited in line at the post office in Charlottesville. “He seems more real to me than Warner; like he’d have our backs more.”

But most analysts still expect Warner to win the race. The Quinnipiac poll is the only one, they note, that has the senator’s lead down to single digits. Most others, including a Roanoke Times poll released last week, show Warner’s lead, while smaller than a month ago, still in the teens.

Still Popular

Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia, says he doubts the sequestration-related budget shortfall, or even the attacks on Obamacare, are enough to derail Warner’s bid for a second term. The incumbent, he stresses, is still the most popular statewide elected official in Virginia, and has been for some time.

“I think Obamacare feelings are pretty well baked in the cake at this point so the insurance cancellations aren’t going to greatly alter the election environment,” Skelley said.

And even with the issue of sequestration tied to it, the budget gap is still a state issue, he added, and likely won’t have much of a long-term effect on the race.

“Gillespie will seek to continue tying Warner to Obama while waiting and hoping things do get worse for Democrats,” Skelley said, “To some degree, that’s about all he can do.”

Back at Jess’ Lunch in Harrisonburg, Foerster, the Rockingham County farmer, was asked who he plans to vote for.

“I’ll probably still vote for Warner,” he said. “Even with the mess with Obamacare, I think he’s done OK. I’m not saying I couldn’t change my mind. The election’s not here yet.”