Mark Warner can see the future…and it’s already scaring him

Despite his reputation as the great magician of Virginia politics, Mark Warner has only won two campaigns for office – as few as George Allen, Bob McDonnell, and Bill Bolling – and never in what would be considered a Republican-friendly year. Under normal circumstances, as an incumbent barely polling over 50% of the vote, Warner’s quick turn to the negative against Ed Gillespie would be expected. It is only due to his reputation as a political wunderkind that Warner has surprised anyone. That said, he has also damaged that reputation, and made it clear he considers himself vulnerable. That he would choose to end his perception of inevitability so soon is a surprise, but from his perspective – based on what he’s seeing in Washington – he might not have much choice. If Ed Gillespie is even considered to be competitive in October, he will likely become Senator-elect in November. Here are the elements of the perfect storm Warner is desperate to avoid.

The national trend for Democrats: Simply put, it’s bad for the Democrats. How bad? Bush 2006 bad (Jim Geraghty), and if we’ve forgotten what happened the last time a one-term Senator in Virginia dealt with an unpopular president in his own party during a mid-term election, you can be assured that Mark Warner hasn’t. Of course, Democrats will tell themselves that Warner would never make Allen’s mistakes, but Warner knows that Democrats can make those mistakes for him.

This brings me to the next piece – the possible government shutdown over the Ex-Im Bank: Democrats in Washington are increasingly convinced they can divide and embarrass the Republicans by tying the re-authorization of the Export-Import Bank to keeping the government running past September 30 – the last day of the fiscal year, and the day with the Bank’s current authorization runs out (Bloomberg). The Bank itself has been a major boon to some of America’s biggest firms – especially Boeing, so much so that Ex-Im has been dubbed “the Bank of Boeing” for years. Depending on one’s point of view, it is either the poster child for corporate welfare or a vital part of our export policy.

From a tactical perspective, the Democrats’ plan seems sound; forcing Republican divisions over Ted Cruz’s “defund Obamacare” plan looked like political gold, and the fault line on Ex-Im runs right through the GOP (including this very blog). From a strategic perspective, however, it’s a potential for disaster. Do the Democrats really think switching sides in class warfare will help them? Can Elizabeth Warren really talk up the Bank of Boeing without exposing her higher ambitions to dynamite? What happens when Capital-P Progressives (who are already wincing at this idea) take to the airwaves?

More to the point, Ex-Im dies at 12:01 AM on October 1. So as soon as any shutdown begins, it will be Democrats pushing the shutdown to change the status quo – the exact opposite from the 2013 shutdown debate (when, despite Cruz’s assertions, Obamacare couldn’t really be stopped).

Closer to home, it should be lost on no one (and certainly isn’t lost on Warner) that the only insurgent Republican to win a contested nomination against an incumbent (Dave Brat) was also the only one who found issues to appeal to crossover Democrats (Brat emphasized TARP and Ex-Im). Gillespie has already followed Brat into opposing Ex-Im’s continuation (Rick Sincere, a.k.a. the Charlottesville Libertarian Examiner).

This leads to the last piece – a united Republican Party, which is something Warner has never faced before. Gillespie’s nomination victory was more substantial than Jim Gilmore’s 2008 squeaker over Bob Marshall, and limited government conservatives taking up Jeb Hensarling’s call to help defeat Ex-Im now have Gillespie as an ally. If Ex-Im becomes as high profile as Reid et al seem to hope, Gillespie can lead a strongly reunified GOP into the election.

In other words, Warner can see an October with an unpopular president, a Senate caucus defending the Bank of Boeing, and a unified Republican Party with a viable candidate – in short, a recipe for early retirement.

Warner can’t reverse the president’s position in the polls; nor can he convince Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer to avoid handing his opponent the perfect populist issue. He can do something about Gillespie’s viability; in fact, he has to do it in order to win, and he needs to be quick about it.

So perception and decorum be damned; before Mark Warner’s fellow Democrats can cripple him, he must cripple Ed Gillespie. Virginia, however, would be much better off if Warner failed.

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