Virginia's Democratic Contender

Posted: Dec 19, 2004 12:00 AM
An exhortation that echoed here 140 years ago -- "On to Richmond!" -- may soon be heard from Democrats wandering the country in search of a path out of the political wilderness. They will trek to Virginia's capital to take the measure of Mark Warner.

He is the 50-year-old governor of that red state and this year is chairman of the National Governors Association. In 1989 he managed the gubernatorial campaign of Douglas Wilder, who became the nation's first elected African American governor. Warner entered politics after making lots of money -- his net worth is estimated at $200 million -- in cell phones. In 1996 he spent $10 million of his own money in losing to Sen. John Warner but ran well in every part of the state and held the senator to his smallest margin of victory -- five points -- since his first election in 1978.

In 2001, running a campaign that sponsored a stock car and stressed gun rights, Warner was elected governor by five points. But, on a recent visit to Washington, he impatiently insisted that his victory was about "more than bluegrass songs and NASCAR races."

Indeed, his success is evidence that Virginia, although it has not voted Democratic since 1964, might be the place for Democrats to start if they really are determined -- as they had better be -- to compete in the South, broadly defined. The 11 states of the Confederacy, plus Oklahoma, Kentucky and West Virginia, have 173 electoral votes. If Democrats are shut out in those 14 states, and they have been in the past two elections, they must carry 74 percent of all the other electoral votes.

As the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington continue to grow and perhaps become more like Philadelphia's liberal-leaning suburbs, Virginia could become one of the states -- Arizona and Colorado are others -- that may soon be fully transformed from reliably Republican to more or less regularly competitive. In 1996 President Clinton narrowly lost Virginia, 47-45. Kerry lost it by nine points, but he had hopes, for a while: He started his weeklong cross-country approach to his Boston convention in Colorado and included a stop in southern Virginia. He was still buying television time in Virginia in late August. Partly because Virginia has 780,000 veterans and their families, Warner says Kerry had "a chance -- until the Swift boat ads."

Warner has driven through a sizable tax increase, but could do so only because he had the support of Republican leaders of the legislature, who were responding to broad public anxiety about education. The tax increase does not seem to have hurt: Virginia's economy is growing at a rate of 5.9 percent, faster than the national average of 4.8 percent. Virginia is ninth on the Federation of Tax Administrators' ranking of states in terms of the lightest state and local taxes measured as a percentage of personal income. And Warner says he has made "more cuts in state government than anyone in Virginia history."

Concerning the Democrats' current fretfulness about cultural or "values" issues, Warner laments that Kerry "never broke from Democratic orthodoxy on any issue. Your base will always hold you to an orthodoxy standard." Warner breaks from purity, as portions of the base understand it, by supporting the Laci Peterson law -- killing a pregnant woman is two killings -- and "reasonable restrictions on late-term abortions." Parental notification of a minor child seeking an abortion? "I'm for it."

Like most governors, he is too polite to clearly say it, but he obviously thinks that governors are more serious figures than senators, an opinion the public seems to share when choosing presidents. "Governors," he says, "gotta decide. At the end of the day, you've got to sign it. You own it then."

Virginia is the last state to forbid governors to serve consecutive terms -- Warner has proposed changing that with a state constitutional amendment, under which he would remain ineligible for a second term -- so in 2006 he will be unemployed. That is a good condition for a presidential aspirant: Nixon was out of public office in 1968, as was Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Ronald Reagan in 1980.

In 2008 the man who should be Time magazine's 2004 Person of the Year, Karl Rove, will be gone, and Democrats will be trying to erase the Republicans' 2004 popular vote winning margin of 2.9 percentage points. That was the smallest margin ever for a president's reelection. Warner will be on the short list of those who might be "Kerry plus 2.9."