Virginia Republican Sen. John Warner's decision to retire at the end of his fifth term next year puts into play a Senate seat that has long eluded Democrats, at a time when a growing number of Republican-held seats have become vulnerable.
Warner, who is 80, would have been favored to win re-election if he had run again. Now, Democrats are optimistic that they can capture Warner's seat, partly because of changing politics in Virginia. It has long been the dominion of the GOP, but Virginia increasingly is a two-party state. Democrats have won back-to-back races for governor, and Sen. George Allen — the Republican who was already measuring drapes for the White House — was unseated in a shocker last year.
Virginia's populous and wealthy northern suburbs have become more and more Democratic. Republican Rep. Tom Davis has been able to win in the 11th Congressional District because of his moderate politics. Davis, who has long said he would run for the Senate if Warner retired, signaled Friday that he is ready to do so.
Battle Expected for Republican Nomination
But Davis' moderation could hurt him in a statewide bid, as Virginia Republicans are decidedly conservative, and a primary challenge from the right is likely. One name widely bandied about is former Gov. Jim Gilmore, who abandoned his longshot bid for the GOP presidential nomination in July.
Gilmore's standing in the state has not been great since he left the governorship after 2001. But Virginia conservatives like Gilmore — and that could prove to be all the support he needs.
That's because the state GOP gets to decide whether the nominee to replace Warner is chosen in a primary or by a convention. In the latter scenario, the advantage would go to conservatives, who tend to show up at conventions in greater numbers than in a primary.
Either way, the fight for the GOP nomination between Davis and Gilmore is likely to get ugly, and could sap the Republican Party by the time the general campaign season rolls around.
GOP anxiety about the seat contrasts with Democratic optimism, especially if former Gov. Mark Warner, the Democrat who succeeded Gilmore as governor, decides to enter the Senate race. He would be the Democrats' dream candidate.
Unlike Gilmore, Mark Warner (no relation to John Warner) left the governorship extremely popular — and he was able to get his anointed successor, Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine, elected. If Mark Warner decides to run, Democrats could very well find themselves holding both Virginia Senate seats for the first time since 1970.
Vulnerable GOP Senate Seats
That's not good news for Republicans, who must defend 22 of the 34 seats at stake in 2008. In addition to Warner, Colorado Republican Sen. Wayne Allard is stepping down, and Democrats — who are on a roll in that state — are optimistic about their chances.
At least four Republicans seeking re-election — Sens. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Susan Collins of Maine, Gordon Smith of Oregon and John Sununu of New Hampshire — are expecting a serious challenge.
And there are questions about the future of Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, who is the subject of a federal kickback investigation, and New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici, who may be hurt from the role he is said to have played in the firing of the U.S. attorney in his area.
Finally, there's Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, whose name was never expected to appear on a list of vulnerable seats. But this week, it was disclosed that Craig was arrested in June in a restroom at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Craig had been in office for more than a quarter-century, but his political future evaporated in just a couple of days.
Since the news of his arrest and guilty plea, there has been a drumbeat of pressure on Craig from his fellow Republicans to resign his seat. The last thing the Republicans wanted, when the Senate comes back on Tuesday from its August recess, was the spotlight to be on a sex scandal involving one of their own. (The transgressions of then-Congressman Mark Foley of Florida are thought to have badly hurt the GOP going into the 2006 elections.)
Craig's announcement on Saturday that he would vacate his seat, effective Sept. 30, was inevitable. It removes from the scene an embarrassment for the GOP, and it allows Republican Idaho Gov. Butch Otter to name a replacement — possibly Lt. Gov. Jim Risch. Risch would then go into the 2008 elections as a clear favorite in a state that hasn't elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1974.