Profile of Virginia Gov. Mark Warner
by malkori, Thu Jun 30, 2005 at 11:37:55 AM EDT
Step-in a 2001 Southern gubernatorial candidate whose campaign sponsored a NASCAR vehicle, hired a bluegrass band to develop a campaign theme song, and won a majority of rural voters (compared to Kerry's 15-point deficit nationwide and 25-point deficit in Virginia) by focusing on rural economic development and touting his support for hunting and gun-ownership rights. Mark Warner, an Indiana-born businessman never previously elected to political office, used these campaign tactics to garner over 52% of the vote, seven points better than Kerry.
Running against Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley during Virginia's 2001 gubernatorial campaign, Warner, whose only previous political experience was chairing the Virginia Democratic Party in 1993 through 1995 and running an unsuccessful Senate campaign against Sen. John Warner in 1996, was considered an underdog. Though Mark Warner lacked a storied political past, he made up for it through his business savvy. As a co-founder of Nextel, Warner made hundreds of millions of dollars in the 80s and 90s brokering cell phone licenses. Using $4.5 million of his own money and doubling Earley's efforts by raising over $19.5 million, Warner showed his fundraising prowess. Specifically, he was able to capitalize on his contacts in the high-tech business industry and tap into their deep pockets. Coupling his skill in raising funds with his political pragmatism, Warner began appealing to many Virginians. Though he is pro-choice, it was a minor issue in this Red-state campaign, mainly because Warner sought to avoid wedge issues. As a self-professed centrist on social issues, Warner saw most Republicans as "essentially tolerant people, though wary of too much emphasis on [issues like] gay rights." Instead of focusing on these divisive subjects, he touted his fiscally-conservative, pro-death penalty, pro-gun rights platform. Using this to overcome the "likeability theory" (discussed later), and frequenting many NASCAR races for good measure among Virginians, Warner rode to a 5-point victory in late 2001.
Though Warner entered Virginia's governor's mansion as a relative unknown, he will leave as a bona fide 2008 presidential hopeful. This political transformation stems mostly from Warner's impressive handling of Virginia's state budget. Inheriting a $6 billion deficit from his predecessor, Warner achieved his biggest political victory by bridging the ideological divide to enlist liberal and conservative support among the 60% Republican legislature for a tax increase. Actually proposing a more modest tax hike than a leading Republican state senator, Warner eliminated fifty state boards and commissions and cut spending across the board, other than in K-12 education. Now, despite beginning $6 billion in the red, Virginia is expected to have a $500 million surplus by the end of 2005. Largely due to Warner's fiscal responsibility and his success as chairman of the National Governors Association, his current approval rating among Virginians stands at 65%, with 26% disapproving.
There is a theory about the South (rural voters in particular): they must like a candidate as a person before they will listen to his/her policy ideas. This "likeability theory" has two main facets. First, a candidate must be have a favorable personality and be in-tune with the culture of the voters he/she is trying to win over. Being in-tune with the culture can range from enjoying hunting and NASCAR to knowing what makes a good barbecue sauce. It is a tool voters use to measure how much a candidate is like themselves, or at the very least, understands what their lives are like. A "liberal" label can be deadly in these parts, particularly if that candidate is viewed as a "soft-on-crime liberal" (think Dukakis in '88), or a "take-your-guns-away liberal." However, pro-death penalty, pro-gun rights Democrats can turn the "likeability theory" in their favor by overcoming the personality threshold and then winning these voters on their economic policies, which are much more beneficial to rural voters than the trickle-down theory of economics.
Mark Warner fits this mold to a "t." As a popular governor, he also has many other aspects working in his favor. Chief among these are his youth (he turns 51 this year), his dashing good looks, and the holy grail of a Democrat's presidential aspirations: he's a Southern governor. To realize the importance of the South, the West, and rural voters, one needs only examine the past dozen presidential elections. No Democrat has been elected since before Jimmy Carter who wasn't a Southern governor. No Democrat has come from outside the South in over 40 years. No Democrat or Republican has come from outside the South or the West in over 40 years.
While being a Southern governor may not be a silver bullet, it certainly does enhance Warner's chances of overcoming the "Primary Conundrum." The power of the Southern governor is two-fold. First, being a governor, especially one who was never previously elected to a legislature, means that Warner does not have a long, vulnerable voting record, the likes of which helped cripple the Kerry campaign. Second, being from the South is an immediate bonus for any Democrat, simply because of the greater appeal to Westerners, Southerners, and rural voters.
This appeal is absolutely essential for any Democrat. While Democrats lost six of the seven Southern Senate races (Lincoln of Arkansas held onto her seat) in 2004, some of this demise can be attributed to a strong Republican Southerner (Bush) at the top of the ticket running against a weak Democratic Northeasterner (Kerry). The question of how to win back the South is a complex and sophisticated one; certainly best left for another time. However, there is little doubt that Warner's centrist appeal will immeasurably help us in the region, as opposed to Kerry's more elitist Northeastern persona.
What are some of Warner's drawbacks? Possibly an Achilles Heel for Warner is his complete lack of military and foreign experience. While he has begun to make overseas visits in the wake of speculation on his presidential ambitions, the biggest unknown of Warner's chances remains: will voters elect a man in the post-9/11 world with no military or foreign experience? On the same note, Warner's prospects may hinge on how big of a role Iraq and terrorism play in 2008. While some may point out that Bush had as little experience as Warner back in 2000, Republicans will claim that the shift in political landscape (i.e. terrorism) will make electing a man like Warner untenable. Warner's approach to foreign policy is still relatively unknown, and it will be interesting to see how he will try to convince Americans that he will keep them safe while in office. He does voice the general sentiment around dKos that war requires sacrifice: "But I think the president's biggest mistake, and I think he's made it twice, once right after 9/11, and once after the Iraq war started, is that he never called on this country for any level of shared sacrifice." Barring another attack, I believe terrorism will gradually fade from the forefront of American politics. By 2008, perhaps voters will not be as concerned with a "litmus test" on how safe a candidate makes them feel. Even if the issue remains as important, there is nothing saying Warner's lack of experience translates into being soft on terrorism.
In addition to having little military/foreign experience, Warner has relatively little political experience. Term-limits bar him from running for governor again, so his resume for 2008 will end at being elected to one term as governor of Virginia. How this will play out in the minds of voters is also unclear. Will his lack of experience be a detriment to his electability, or will he be viewed as a welcome change-of-pace, a legitimate "Washington-outsider?" I believe it is very plausible, especially given the crashing poll numbers of the president and Congress, that Americans will be looking for a fresh new face in Washington.
Another large issue concerning Warner is taxes. Like the political experience issue, taxes could work for him or against him, largely depending on how he frames the subject. Republicans will no doubt attempt to portray him as a tax-and-spend Democrat who is anti-business. Perhaps Warner can fend off these claims by painting himself as pro-consumer and by comparing Virginia's 2001 national deficit to the current national deficit. Virginia had a $6 billion deficit in 2001 which Warner turned into a budget surplus by strategically raising taxes. This $6 billion deficit is almost exactly proportional to the projected national deficit in 2008 ($246 billion) in terms of the population of each body (7 million Virginians, 280 million Americans). If Warner can effectively turn the taxes issue around on Republicans and again show the voters that he is the fiscally responsible candidate (while he did raise taxes, he cut spending instead of raising it), he will be a tough candidate to beat. I predict that in addition to turning the tax debate into a deficit debate, a Warner plan to modestly raise taxes on the wealthy will resonate with a lot of voters for two reasons. First, voters like the idea of fiscal responsibility, not tax breaks for the wealthy. Therefore, Bush's tax cuts will be a detriment to any Republican candidate in 2008. Second, conservative Fed chairman Alan Greenspan recently voiced concerns about the growing divide between the rich and the poor in this country. Rolling back the tax cuts for the wealthy and opposing a repeal of the estate tax would play well with many voters, especially those who share Greenspan's concern.
And what about the "moral values" voters? Warner, a Presbyterian, takes a lowkey approach to the subject. Rather than proselytizing or claiming to be God's choice for the Presidency, Warner looks broadly at the issue of faith. "People want to know who you are. They see that through your faith. They see that through your values. They see that through what you've done in your life, what you emphasize as your priorities." Moral values may be yesterday's news, or it may be as important an issue in 2008 as it was in 2004. This largely depends on who the Republicans nominate in '08, but I suspect Warner will have a much easier time discussing faith and moral values than Kerry did in '04.
Faith will not be the central tenet in Warner's potential campaign though. He characterizes his political philosophy as this: "Somehow, we're still the party of the status quo. My starting premise is that I really think we need to change the framing of the political debate, from right vs. left, conservative vs. liberal, to future vs. past. The Democratic Party at its best has always been when it has been about the future." This future vs. past debate will strike a chord with many Americans, especially the increasing number who are dissatisfied with the current administration. Future vs. past is a winner for stem cell research, Iraq (Bush did his thing in the past, Warner has a different idea for the future), the economy, and so on. It will be enormously effective with such disapproval of Bush, because people will associate the past with Bush's poor choices and the future with Warner's changes. Better than framing the debate as future vs. past, I think Warner, and all Democrats, need to portray the difference between Democrats and Republicans as follows: Progress vs. Stagnation
However, I will write on this idea another time.
Though it is far too early to be thinking about electoral math, I will undertake the task anyway. Kerry lost in 2004 by a vote of 252-286. Of these electoral votes, 146 of Kerry's were from states he won by 10 points or more (CA, IL, NY, MD, DC, VT, MA, CT, and RI) and 183 of Bush's were from states he won by 10 points or more (AL, AZ, UT, ID, MT, WY, ND, SD, NE, KS, OK, TX, LA, MS, AL, GA, SC, NC). Assuming for right now that none of Kerry's states are in play in 2008 and only WV and AZ are in play among Bush's states, there are 224 electoral votes up for grabs. Among these 224 votes, only 25 are not from the South, Midwest, or West (PA and NH). Therefore, nominating a candidate who can take advantage of this electoral scenario is a vital strategy for Democrats. Furthermore, with Nevada and Ohio, among other states, trending blue, we must nominate a candidate who will further this shift, not hinder it. Finally, assuming that 2008 will be as close as 2004 and 2000, one or two states may make the difference. A state like Virginia, with its 13 electoral votes, could very well tip the election one way or the other. In 2004, Virginia and New Mexico, Virginia and Iowa, or Virginia and Nevada would have meant a Kerry presidency, even without Ohio. The fact that Warner hails from Virginia, and the fact that the last candidate from either party besides Al Gore to lose his home state was George McGovern in 1972, is not to be overlooked.
Warner's strengths are clear. He's young, handsome, charismatic, a great fundraiser (he is founding his own federal PAC soon), a centrist, and most of all, a Southern governor. His weaknesses are also apparent, though not inevitably detrimental: not much political experience, no foreign and military experience, and a possible susceptibility to being labeled a tax-and-spend Democrat. However, because Warner's credentials far outweigh his shortcomings, his candidacy boils down to the following debate: is the South worth fighting for? Is it worth nominating a candidate we might not otherwise nominate because of a hope for the South? I believe there is no other option. In 2004, we swept the Northeast, we swept the Pacific Coast, we took four Midwestern states, and yet we still came up 18 votes short of victory. We need a candidate who can reign in some of these states that have been voting Republican, often against their best interests, because of a backlash against Northeastern liberals. We need a candidate who can appeal to rural voters, not only through his/her policies, but through his/her personality as well. We need a candidate who can reverse the Republican trend across the nation and show that Democrats stand for so much more than gay marriage and choice on abortion. We have a man like that in our camp already, and his name is Mark Warner.
Next post: profile of New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson