STAUNTON, Va. — Sen. Mark Warner has a lot going for him as he kicks off his bid for a second term this year: plenty of money, personal approval ratings in the 60 percent range, and a healthy lead over likely Republican challenger Ed Gillespie, to name just a few.
But perhaps the Virginia Democrat’s biggest asset is his carefully honed reputation as a bipartisan dealmaker — a moderate Democrat who’s not afraid to buck the party line and join forces with the GOP to break Washington’s all-too-frequent stalemates. It’s an image with growing political cache in an increasingly purple state such as Virginia. And it’s one that Warner, who officially kicked off his re-election bid in Wise on Thursday, hopes will give him cover from his biggest liability — his support for Obamacare, the much-maligned healthcare reform package he helped push through the Senate in 2009.
But does his reputation as an independent voice in Washington hold up under scrutiny? Hardly, say Republicans, who point to Warner’s voting record. Over the last five years, Warner has voted with President Obama 97 percent of the time. That figure applies to Senate votes on which the president took a clear position. His consistent support for Obama, GOP officials say, makes Warner one of the more liberal members of the Senate. Democrats as a whole voted with the president about 95 percent of the time.
“His voting record is very much at odds with what he wants us to believe,” Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and White House adviser during the administration of George W. Bush, said. “He has rarely bucked the president or his leaders in the Senate.”
But Gillespie says the issue goes beyond the 97-percent figure.
“Look at the votes that constitute that record,” he says, ticking off a number of high-profile bills both Warner and the president supported, including measures to raise taxes and the debt limit, and legislation in support of a carbon tax. And, of course, Obamacare.
The healthcare reform act is the one issue the GOP would like to keep fresh in voters’ minds going into the November election. Republicans are making Obamacare’s botched rollout and poor poll numbers a central theme in their bid to take back the Senate and increase their numbers in the House this fall.
The healthcare bill and other measures Warner has voted for in support of Obama “clearly aren’t in line with [Warner’s] claims of being an independent voice,” Gillespie said.
But Democrats point out that because the 97-percent tally includes only those votes on which Obama took a stand, it represents just a fraction of Warner’s overall voting record. Indeed, those votes turn out to be just 28 percent of the nearly 1,500 roll calls since Warner joined the chamber in 2009.
“Solely tallying an arbitrary number of procedural votes does not accurately depict the sum total of a U.S. senator’s work,” David Turner, Warner’s campaign manager, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch last month.
What’s more, Democrats say, a look at Warner’s voting record last year shows that the senator voted against Obama’s wishes more than the vast majority of his fellow Democrats.
“Forty Democrats voted with the president more often than Warner, and only 10 voted against the president more,” Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said, noting that Warner was tied with Alaska’s Mark Begich and Massachusetts’ Elizabeth Warren. The chamber currently consists of 53 Democrats, 45 Republicans and two independents, both of whom caucus with the Democrats.
Just as Gillespie and the Republicans have touted Warner’s specific votes in support of the president, the senator’s campaign has highlighted those in which he ran counter to Obama’s position. Warner was one of only 15 Democrats to vote against reauthorization of the assault weapons ban last year, for instance, and he supported legislation to make concealed-carry permits valid across state lines and to increase privacy rights for gun owners. He also opposed legislation last year to delay the controversial spending cuts known as sequestration, and he voted to overturn Environmental Protection Agency regulations to cut emissions from coal-fired, electric-generation plants.
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.”