Warner the Moderate? Not So Fast, Republicans Say

Additionally, Warner has co-sponsored two bills that buck Obama’s energy policy but have not yet advanced to a vote on the Senate floor. The first, introduced in 2012, would open gas and oil drilling off the coast of Virginia, and the second, filed last year, would speed approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.

But Pat Mullins, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, says Warner’s more moderate votes over the last couple of years are nothing more than a political ploy designed to make him look more independent than he really is.

"Every time Mark Warner has to face the voters, he runs back to the middle and puts on his ‘moderate’ mask,” Mullins said in a statement criticizing Warner’s support for a carbon tax. “But the truth is that Warner is far more concerned about polar bears than he is about jobs in Southwest Virginia.”

Warner’s campaign, however, say his votes aren’t the only evidence of his bipartisan credentials. They point to his turn as co-chairman of the “gang of six,” a bipartisan group of senators that drew up a compromise on the debt-ceiling crisis of 2011, and efforts to broker deals with the GOP on the budget and other issues.

Gillespie, though, isn’t buying it — and he doesn’t think Virginia voters will either on Nov. 2. Warner, he says, is a typical Democrat, especially when it comes to taxes and spending.

“Mark Warner voted for $1 trillion in new taxes,” said Gillespie, who faces four lesser-known Republicans for the nomination at the June 7 GOP convention in Richmond. “How is that ‘moderate’?”

Skelley, the political analyst at U.Va., thinks Warner will likely survive this fall, given his popularity and his bankroll — he’s raised more than $11 million to Gillespie’s $2.2 million , and has nearly $9 million in cash on hand as of Wednesday. Warner could also dip into his considerable personal fortune — estimated by Forbes magazine at more than $76 million in 2012 — that he made as a venture capitalist and early investor in Nextel.

“And the few polls that have come out show him with a decent lead over Gillespie,” Skelley said. The most recent poll has the senator with a 15-point edge over Gillespie.

But, Skelley adds, Warner is hardly a shoe-in. Virginia voters have proved fickle in the past. They handed Democrats the keys to the state’s three top posts last year, but did just the opposite four years earlier, handing the GOP victories in the races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general in 2009. And with Obama’s popularity at 45 percent, and showing few signs of improving, Gillespie could make a race out of it.

“Should the president's approval falter in the coming months,” Skelley says. “It could make this race far closer and give Gillespie a shot at winning.”

And Gillespie’s political connections as a D.C. veteran could help close the money gap, Skelley said.

“If he can really utilize his D.C. connections effectively, he will be able to raise more money,” Skelley explained. “And if he raises a lot of money on his own, national Republicans and conservative outside groups will be more inclined to throw more dough his way.”