New Politics in the Old Dominion If Sen. John Warner (R) retires and former Gov. Mark Warner (D) decides to run for the Senate, Democrats could very well find themselves holding both Virginia Senate seats for the first time since 1970.
NPR logo New Politics in the Old Dominion

New Politics in the Old Dominion

Democrats haven't held both Senate seats in Virginia since Harry Byrd Jr. and William Spong served together nearly 40 years ago. hide caption

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When Richard Obenshain died in a 1978 plane crash, Virginia GOP leaders turned to John Warner. hide caption

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The former first lady died July 11 at the age of 94. hide caption

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Sixty-one years ago today, Eugene Talmadge gets fewer votes but wins the Georgia Democratic primary for governor. hide caption

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Not many eyebrows were raised on Saturday over the news that former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore was dropping his bid for the Republican nomination for president. Gilmore's campaign and fundraising were going absolutely nowhere, despite his claim – often repeated in the debates – that he was the only true conservative in the race. His decision was the proverbial tree falling in the forest.

But while he made no impact on the national scene, he still has the potential to be a factor in next year's Senate race, should incumbent Republican John Warner retire, as some have speculated. Warner, who is 80 years old and in his fifth term, raised just $500 in the first quarter of the year — not much more, as we wrote in the April 19 column, than the cost of a John Edwards haircut. The Democratic takeover of the Senate last year has not diminished Warner's influence, and he remains highly involved in trying to work out language on Iraq policy that is acceptable to a majority of the Senate. Warner has shown no indication, other than his weak fundraising, that he plans to retire. (A decision is expected in September.)

But what if Warner decides that he has had enough? Conservatives have never been thrilled with him — dissatisfaction that goes back to Warner's 1987 vote against Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. But they would be far less thrilled with Rep. Tom Davis (R) as his successor. It's no secret that Davis, a moderate who represents the 11th Congressional District in Virginia's northern suburbs, wants to run for the Senate and would do so should Warner step down. One reason that may be speeding up Davis' decision is that his district has become increasingly Democratic; he was held to just 55.5 percent of the vote last year, his lowest re-election tally since coming to Congress in 1995. He might figure that running statewide would be easier than trying to hold on in the 11th CD.

Not if conservatives have anything to do with it. They would love to find someone to take Davis on in a primary. Even before his presidential bid fizzled, Gilmore's name had come up, though his standing in the state has not been great since he left the governorship after 2001. But Virginia conservatives like Gilmore. If Warner retires, then it's up to the state GOP whether the nominee to replace him is decided 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.

GOP anxiety about the seat contrasts with Democratic optimism, especially if Mark Warner, the Democrat who succeeded Gilmore as governor, decides to run. Unlike Gilmore, Mark Warner (no relation to John Warner) left the governorship extremely popular. And also unlike Gilmore, Warner was able to get his anointed successor, Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine, elected. No one completely understands why Mark Warner decided last October to withdraw his name from any White House consideration – he was once touted as the "Hillary alternative." He still remains a political hot property: a potential Democratic running mate in 2008. And like many Old Dominion pols, he may be looking at the race for governor in '09 (more on this later in the column). But if John Warner retires and Mark Warner decides to run for the Senate, Democrats could very well find themselves holding both Virginia Senate seats for the first time since 1970.

And yes, Virginia, there is not only a Santa Claus, but there is a pile of questions about Virginia to deal with this week.

Q: I recently learned that John Warner had originally lost his bid for the Republican Senate nomination in 1978 to Richard Obenshain. After Obenshain died prior to the election, the party chose Warner as his replacement, and he went on to win in November. Do you know of any other senator who has the same curious history? The only comparable situation that comes to my mind is Sen. Henry Dworshak, Republican of Idaho, who as an incumbent had lost to Democrat Bert Miller in 1948. When Sen. Miller died in 1949, Dworshak was appointed his successor and went on to win the special election in 1950 and two more in 1954 and '60; he died in office in 1962. – Augo Knoke, Hamburg, Germany

A: First, a note about Richard Obenshain. Thirty years later, his death is still mourned by Virginia conservatives, who credit him as being the architect for the growth of the Republican Party in a state that was long the stronghold of Sen. Harry Byrd and other conservative Democrats like him. Obenshain had narrowly defeated Warner for the Senate nomination on the sixth ballot at the 1978 GOP convention, only to perish in a plane crash two months later. His daughter, Kate Obenshain Griffin, is a former chair of the state party who has been mentioned as a potential Senate candidate herself if Warner doesn't run again next year.

I can't think of a situation completely analogous to the one involving Warner and Obenshain. The closest comparison that comes to mind involves Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens. Stevens was the unsuccessful Republican nominee for the Senate in 1962, and in 1968 he lost the GOP Senate primary. But when Sen. Bob Bartlett (D) died in December of '68, Stevens was appointed to fill the vacancy by Republican Gov. Walter Hickel, and he has been in the Senate ever since.

Q: If Sen. Warner retires, which appears likely, and Tom Davis runs for his seat, which also appears likely, what do you think the chances are of the Democrats picking up Davis' congressional seat? — Rob Levinson, Fairfax, Va.

A: I'll say one thing: Democrats have a better shot if Davis doesn't run again. And while no one knows what kind of year '08 will be, I think it's safe to say that if the news out of Iraq is the same as it is now, Republicans might be in for a very long election season.

Some of the Dems who are looking at the race in the 11th District include Andrew Hurst, who challenged Davis in 2006 and won 44 percent of the vote; Gerry Connolly, the chair of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors; and ex-Rep. Leslie Byrne, whom Davis ousted in '94.

Q: In your May 24 column, you wrote, "In Virginia, governors can only serve one consecutive term." Actually, by law, they are limited to a single term — nothing "consecutive" about it. – William Vodrey, Cleveland, Ohio

A: Not true. They can run again if they sit out a term. That's what Mills Godwin did, and he accomplished it from both parties: He was elected as a Democrat in 1965 and as a Republican in 1973. Several former governors of Virginia, such as Mark Warner (D), Jim Gilmore (R) and George Allen (R), have been mentioned as potential gubernatorial candidates in 2009.

Q: Sen. John Warner (R) is a great statesman and has been in the Senate since 1979. Why has he never been mentioned as a candidate for president? – Ken Siman, New York, N.Y.

A: In the beginning of his Senate career, Warner was seen more as a dilettante than a serious legislator. His main attributes during his 1978 campaign were his wealth – he reportedly received millions in his divorce settlement from his first wife, heiress Catherine Mellon – and the Hollywood glitz surrounding his second wife, actress Elizabeth Taylor. It didn't take long for his hard work to change his reputation. But between his vote against Bork in '87, his failure to save the nomination of John Tower as Secretary of Defense in '89, his outright hostility to Senate nominee Oliver North in '94, and his refusal to vote to remove President Clinton from office in '99, conservatives never embraced him. More important, he never indicated any interest in the job.

FIRST TEAR CANDIDATE: Regarding the flashback in last week's column to the collapse of Sen. Ed Muskie's (D-ME) presidential candidacy in 1972, Dennis McCulloch of Kansas City, Mo., writes, "Thank you for not repeating the error that Muskie 'cried in the snow' in New Hampshire (not that what he did wasn't embarrassing enough) and for noting his magnificent defense of the Democratic Party on election eve in 1970. Another parallel to John McCain was Muskie's reputation for having a temper. I remember a video clip of a Senate committee meeting, chaired by Muskie, with Strom Thurmond (R-SC) as the ranking Republican. Muskie was trying to gavel down Thurmond, to which the South Carolinian responded to the effect that Muskie has too much of a temper to be president. I thought Muskie was going to hit him with the gavel."

Last week's column also had some reader reaction to my response to President Bush's decision to commute Scooter Libby's sentence, which seemed to displease both those on the left and on the right. One wrote in, "Yes, I know it says on your bio that you are the NPR Political Editor. However, I suggest the title be changed to Political Hack for the Democrats." That brought this reaction from Jon Yuengling of West Norriton, Pa.: "Want you to know that we appreciate what you do as the 'Official Political Junkie.' Keep up the good work. It takes some effort to galvanize both the left and right against you."

WE'RE ON THE AIR EVERY WEDNESDAY: Reading this column is bad enough; you can also hear a "Political Junkie" segment every Wednesday on Talk of the Nation, NPR's live call-in program, at 2:40 pm Eastern time. Last week's early and expanded "Junkie" segment (which ran from 2 p.m. to 2:40 p.m.) surprised Ken Gursky of Basking Ridge, N.J., who wanted to know if we've moved permanently to the 2 pm start. The answer is no, but sometimes, if the political news of the week warrants it, the show can decide to have an extended segment starting at 2. Unfortunately, there is no way to announce that change in this column. (But on the days it happens, you'll hear TOTN host Neal Conan's promo announcing the change.) Again, if your local NPR station doesn't carry TOTN, you can still hear it at

IT'S ALL POLITICS: That's the name of our weekly political podcast. It's a combination of brilliant analysis and sophisticated humor, hosted each week by NPR's Ron Elving and myself, and it goes up on the Web site every Thursday. President Bush commuted Elving's sentence last week, giving him the week off from podcasting. Thanks to NPR's Mara Liasson for filling in.And it's clear that "It's All Politics" not only tastes great, it's less filling! Or, as James Robinson of Charlottesville, Va., writes, "I LOVE your podcast. I work out with it and find myself taking extra long breaks in between sets."

******* Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please don't forget to include your city and state. *********

This Day in Campaign History: Former Gov. Eugene Talmadge, though trailing in popular votes, wins the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Georgia because of his lead in what was known as "county unit" votes. Winning the Dem nomination is tantamount to victory in November. Reacting to the largest black vote in state history during the primary, Talmadge promises that "no Negro will vote in Georgia for the next four years" (July 18, 1946). But Talmadge dies on Dec. 21, before he is sworn into office.

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