Warner to get new Washington term after nail-biter win

Jeremy M. Lazarus | , Joey Matthews | 11/7/2014, 5:55 a.m.
Whew! That’s how many supporters of U.S. Sen Mark Warner are reacting after he narrowly won re-election to six more ...
U.S. Sen. Mark Warner waves to the crowd with his wife, Lisa Collis, at an election party in Arlington. Photo by Associated Press


That’s how many supporters of U.S. Sen Mark Warner are reacting after he narrowly won re-election to six more years of representing Virginia in Washington.

The 59-year-old former Virginia governor managed to escape the GOP avalanche Tuesday night, eking out a surprisingly close 16,000-vote victory over his main rival, Republican lobbyist and political strategist Ed Gillespie, according to the unofficial count of the nearly 2.2 million votes cast.

Although he was expected to handily win re-election, Sen. Warner, a Democrat, was behind for nearly four hours before votes from precincts in Northern Virginia finally gave him a lead around 11 p.m. to the relief of his backers.

Mr. Gillespie is still hoping against hope, and refused to concede as of the Free Press deadline Wednesday night. He is awaiting official results from this week’s canvass by the state Board of Elections. He could request a recount if his loss by less than 1 percent of the total votes cast proves accurate.

Examination of the results by locality indicates Sen. Warner’s apparent win was the result of strong African-American support in Richmond and other urban areas, as well as his strong showing in the state’s largest population center, Northern Virginia.

This is a victory Sen. Warner’s party desperately needed after a night in which Republicans generally swamped Democrats, picking up seven Senate seats to seize control of the upper chamber and gaining the largest majority in the U.S. House of Representatives in nearly 70 years.

Sen. Warner’s victory Tuesday is a far cry from his 2008 win when, running down ticket during the initial presidential race of then-Sen. Barack Obama, he beat former Gov. Jim Gilmore by 1.1 million votes. Sen. Warner credited Tuesday’s win to his commitment to be the kind of legislator people want, someone wiling to “work across party lines and actually put the people’s business first.”

In his victory remarks, the senator said the election shows that the “people of America want us to move past sound bites. They want us to move past politics. They want us to get out of political gridlock. And they want us to make sure to get the job done for you and actually govern.” And that, he pledged, is what he will seek to do in his new term.

This was the closest Senate race since 2006, when Democrat Jim Webb upset Republican George Allen, then the incumbent, by about 9,000 votes, a result confirmed in a recount.

While Sen. Warner was not expected to win in a cakewalk this time, most polls suggested the politician who enjoys the highest voter approval rating among Virginia’s elected officials, would win by 7 to 10 percentage points.

One person who found the closeness of the race unsurprising is former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, who remembers winning his historic 1989 race to become the first elected African-American state chief executive by a razor-thin 6,741 votes.

Mr. Wilder, who campaigned with Sen. Warner in the final push before Tuesday’s vote, told the Free Press of his advice to Sen. Warner: “I told him not to believe the polls — that they were not accurate.” At the time, the polls also showed an easy win for Mr. Wilder.

Mr. Gillespie did better than anticipated, Mr. Wilder said, because “there was an anti-incumbency fever going across the country. Many felt that Washington was the problem, not the problem-solver.”

The GOP challenger also did a good job of tying Sen. Warner to President Obama, Mr. Wilder said. With the president’s approval ratings sagging badly, chiefly among white voters, the president became a liability that Sen. Warner could not escape.

Carol J. Pretlow, associate professor of political science and director of the Consortium for Strategic and Global Studies at Norfolk State University, said, “I think it is not unusual when you have problems with the economy and other problems for people to say, ‘We need a change.’ ”

Lower turnout of voters is one big reason this election restored Virginia’s reputation as a battleground. In 2006, nearly 2.4 million people voted, or 53 percent of the registered 4.5 million registered voters.

But the Warner-Gillespie contest drew fewer than 2.2 million voters, or about 41 percent of the now expanded voter pool of 5.3 million registrants.

Fairfax County, the state’s largest locality, was a help to the senator’s hopes for re-election. About 300,000 people voted in that county, with 57 percent going for Sen. Warner.

However, a look at the Fairfax results shows that it played somewhat less of a role in the Warner election than it did former Sen. Webb’s upset win in 2006.

Mr. Gillespie actually carved into the Democratic vote in Fairfax. Not only did 40,000 fewer voters go to polls in that county than did in 2006 when 340,000 people voted, but Sen. Warner won the county by 54,000, or 11,000 fewer than the 65,000 votes Mr. Webb won eight years ago.

Instead, it appears Sen. Warner made up for the shortfall with stronger support from African-American voters in Richmond and other places with a large black constituency, such as Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Petersburg and Portsmouth.

Sen. Warner picked up 2,000 to 3,000 extra votes in those urban centers when his results are compared with Mr. Webb’s. For example, Sen. Warner won 27,000 more votes in Richmond than Mr. Gillespie did. In 2006, Mr. Webb received 24,000 more votes than then-Sen. Allen did in Richmond.

Mr. Wilder said it is doubtful that Sen. Warner would be returning to Washington if he had failed to gain such strong support from African-American voters, who comprise about 20 percent of Virginia’s voters.

“I think Mark would say that without the African-American vote, it would be over for him,” Mr. Wilder said.

Sen. Warner’s efforts to show he has worked with Republicans also paid off, allowing him to win a bigger share of the vote in Republican suburbs or at least limit Mr. Gillespie’s gains. Chesterfield County is a prime example. In 2006, Mr. Allen won the county by 18,000 votes, but Mr. Gillespie only won Chesterfield by 8,800 votes, a more than 9,000 vote difference.

Sen. Warner also did well in some counties like Henrico. Eight years ago, Republican Allen narrowly won the county. But in this election, Sen. Warner won Henrico by 12,000 votes, his support from the growth in African-American and other Democratic-leaning voters as well as the support he gained from Republicans.

Sen. Warner showed his appreciation for Republicans crossing party lines to support him when he issued a public thank you to his predecessor, former GOP Sen. John W. Warner, for endorsing him and campaigning for him. The endorsement appears to have been critical to moving some Republicans away from Mr. Gillespie.

Though Mr. Gillespie likely has lost this race, Mr. Wilder speculated that Virginia will hear more from the Republican, noting the now campaign-tested Mr. Gillespie has “positioned himself to run for governor in the next cycle.”

Returning to Washington, Sen. Warner will be part of a new Democratic minority in the next Congress and could find it harder to find allies on the other side of the aisle, Ms. Pretlow suggested.

She predicts that Republicans would vow to work in a bipartisan fashion with congressional Democrats and then splinter off to pursue their separate agenda, with an eye on the 2016 Presidential election.

Ms. Pretlow said the lesson of the midterm elections is “listen to the people. Yes, it’s important to understand the policy perspectives of each party, but how does that affect everyday people as a whole.

“When people are unemployed, or getting paid a low minimum wage, they’re really concerned about who’s helping them find solutions to those problems.”

As for President Obama, she indicated that he will be tested in trying to work with a Congress controlled by Republicans.

“We love President Obama very much, but we very much say, ‘Man up.’’’