The problem for Republicans is this: It does not matter WHY Warner hasn't had to withstand a sustained negative attack on his record, the fact is he has not. And that means his approval ratings are not a flash in the pan; people genuinely like him and believe they know him. Republicans will undoubtedly be able to peel off some of that goodwill from Warner but, judging from his poll numbers, he has plenty to lose before he is in any real political jeopardy...This is all true. Mark Warner is pretty much the strongest candidate the Democrats can field in Virginia in any race. But he is also the only Democrat who would be favored over the generic Republican in any statewide race. That is, Virginia is still a Republican state -- even if that is less true than in the past. And that partisan bent remains a challenge.
Davis is no fundraising slouch himself, having built a national network of donors during his two terms as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. In 2006, Davis raised and spent roughly $2.75 million on his race despite facing only minimal Democratic competition. Gilmore faces serious questions about his fundraising ability as he was never able to raise serious sums for his quixotic presidential bid; the money he did raise came from a loyal group of core supporters, many of whom donated the federal limit to his campaign and therefore will be unable to contribute to any Senate effort. Either way, Warner will almost certainly outspend his Republican opponent with a combination of fundraising and personal donations.
The conclusion? Mark Warner sits in a unique position. He is well-known and well liked by Virginia voters and is certain to be well financed. But campaigns aren't decided on blogs, but on the ground with actual voters. At this time in the 2006 cycle, no one would have predicted Virginia Sen. George Allen would be bounced from the Senate. Strange things happened. Circumstances intrude on predictions. But, make no mistake: Mark Warner starts the race as a strong favorite.
Recall that of the state's 3 Democrats recently elected statewide, Warner and Kaine were elected in non-presidential years, when it was easier for them to distinguish themselves from the national Democratic candidate. Webb meanwhile was elected due to a perfect storm of partisan coverage, opponent's missteps, and worst GOP year in a generation. And still he won by a hair.
While the Virginia electorate has changed somewhat -- notably because of the dramatic growth in Northern Virginia -- these candidates won largely because they were seen as different from the national party. That distinction will be much harder to draw in a presidential year -- particularly if Democrats select a polarizing figure as their nominee. (Either Hillary or Edwards would qualify.)
There are plenty of instances in which statewide candidates of the 'wrong' party prevail in off-year elections, but lose when they run in a year when the presidential race drives the election in the state. Warner will face that challenging environment next year. Further, will the Netroots give him the leeway they gave Jim Webb in 2006, after their sour experience with moderate Democrats in the House and Senate? How will Warner reconcile Virginia's military culture with his party's dovish stands on Iraq and terror more generally?
I can't see this being as easy for Warner as people believe it to be now.
One surprise though -- while Tom Davis and Jim Gilmore are clearly flawed candidates, and some Virginia Republicans are pressing for another candidate, some state conservatives are not waiting to see whether there will be any more entrants:
In advance of today’s announcement by former Gov. Mark Warner (D) that he’ll run for the state’s open Senate seat in 2008, former state Attorney General Jerry Kilgore (R) and a slew of state Republican officials released a letter Wednesday announcing that they are supporting Rep. Tom Davis (R) in the contest to replace Sen. John Warner (R).
So far, Congressman Eric Cantor is the only name that I have heard as a potential conservative entrant into the race. If he does choose to run, he would be a tougher candidate than either Gilmore or Davis.
Update: Dave Weigel has a very creepy picture of 'Mr. Warner,' and wonders what the race says about tax cut politics.