JEFFSNOTESMUG

Jeff Schapiro

At this rate, Mark Warner will be running for U.S. Senate — or something else — during a plague of locusts.

“There’s still time,” said Susan Swecker, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Virginia.

Warner, occasionally mentioned for president, never mind he briefly scratched that itch more than 12 years ago, is seeking a third term in the Senate. His candidacy — as were three earlier Warner campaigns, reaching back to 2001 — is being disrupted by unexpected crisis.

For Warner, now it is Politics in the Time of the Coronavirus.

He canceled his kickoff tour last week because of safety concerns and is looking to spend more time online for face-time with voters.

On Tuesday night, between meetings in Washington, D.C., over the COVID-19 economic rescue package — he helped negotiate aid for small business — Warner joined a conference call with the state Democratic Party leadership.

Warner has paused fundraising — he’s collected more than $10.7 million and had $7.4 million on hand at the start of the year — to encourage small donors to underwrite food banks during the pandemic.

Warner is heavily favored for re-election largely because of underwhelming prospective Republican opposition. About six Republicans want to take him on. All have little cash and less name recognition, making for tougher going in this blue-trending state.

Plus, with Joe Biden the presumed Democratic nominee for president, Warner and congressional candidates, particularly the imperiled Abigail Spanberger and Elaine Luria, have someone they can run with, not from — as they would were self-styled democratic socialist Bernie Sanders atop the ticket.

Perhaps it is no more than an eerie coincidence, but Warner — whether running for governor or Senate — has seen his best-laid plans upended by catastrophic external events.

This has tested Warner’s capacity for improvisation — he’s happiest working from a carefully crafted script — and is a reminder that the unpredictable increasingly shapes politics in a state where politics could be groaningly predictable.

In 2001, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York City, Pennsylvania and Northern Virginia, the election for governor entered a period of suspended animation.

Neither Warner, then the Democratic nominee for governor, nor Republican rival Mark Earley, knew what to do. So they essentially did nothing for at least two weeks before gingerly resuming their campaigns with appearances at smaller events off the beaten path.

Both candidates were forced to retool their law-and-order proposals to emphasize strengthened security. Warner, as governor, would name as homeland security director the center-right Republican whom Earley defeated for the gubernatorial nomination, then-Lt. Gov. John Hager.

In 2008, seeking the Senate, Warner would make short work of his Republican opponent, former Gov. Jim Gilmore, running ahead of Barack Obama in Virginia. The race reached its peak as Wall Street went into the meltdown that would hasten the Great Recession.

Warner arrived in D.C. after the bailout of the financial sector but in time to support a rescue for automakers and Obamacare — votes that put him crosswise with an ilk that had backed him in Richmond: the Republican-leaning business community.

Many of its members saw those votes by Warner not only as a betrayal of his economic credentials — he made a fortune as a mobile communications pioneer — but as evidence he was captive to the Democratic left.

In 2014, when Warner was standing for a second term in the Senate, that was powerful ammunition for Republicans. Their nominee, Ed Gillespie, pounded Warner for unquestioned fealty to Obama, having voted with him 97% of the time.

That Obama’s popularity was falling — even in Virginia, which he had carried twice — compelled Warner to keep his distance from the president and to attempt to cozy anew with the corpocracy.

Both steps irritated the liberal Democratic base, dampening turnout and allowing Gillespie to come oh-so-close to defeating Warner.

But there was another factor in Warner’s political near-death, one in which there is an echo in his current campaign.

In October 2014, the Obama administration and the states were scrambling to respond to the Ebola virus, which had originated in Africa and threatened to spread to the United States.

Virginia, under Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, was among seven states that — barely a week before the election — had in place mandatory screening for the infection for travelers from three African nations: Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

The Warner campaign’s internal polling showed that fears over Ebola were further eroding Obama’s standing in Virginia and — by extension — weakening the senator, suggesting a photo-finish to an election that, for Warner, should have been a formality.

Six years later, Warner would seem to have an easier go of it, presumably helped — in a high-turnout presidential year — by an enduring hostility in Virginia for President Donald Trump.

That fever among voters is probably also being driven by the coronavirus.

Contact Jeff E. Schapiro at (804) 649-6814 or jschapiro@timesdispatch.com. Listen to his podcast, Capitol Chat, on Richmond.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter, @RTDSchapiro. Listen to his analysis 8:45 a.m. Friday on VPM News, 88.9 FM.

Load comments

You must be a full digital subscriber to read this article. You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.

Your sports-only digital subscription does not include access to this section.

SALE!
Only $3 for 3 Months
Unlimited Digital Access

  • Unlimited access to every article, video and piece of online content
  • Exclusive, locally-focused reporting
  • News delivered straight to your inbox via e-newsletters
  • Includes digital delivery of daily e-edition via email
SALE!
Only $3 for 3 Months
Unlimited Digital Access

  • Unlimited access to every article, video and piece of online content
  • Exclusive, locally-focused reporting
  • News delivered straight to your inbox via e-newsletters
  • Includes digital delivery of daily e-edition via email