Polls show Virginia Senate race tightening; Warner still favored to win

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U.S. Senate candidate Ed Gillespie (left) of Virginia. Photo Courtesy: Phil Tram Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) (right) Photo Courtesy: United States Senate
U.S. Senate candidate Ed Gillespie (left) of Virginia. Photo Courtesy: Phil Tram
Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) Photo Courtesy: United States Senate

The race for Virginia’s Senate seat appears to have tightened in the last few days before the tomorrow’s midterm election, as a recent poll shows Republican challenger Ed Gillespie having finally closed in on incumbent Sen. Mark Warner (D) in a last-minute surge to place him within a single-digit margin.

A poll released Friday by Christopher Newport University’s Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy, conducted Oct. 23-29, shows Gillespie trailing Warner by 7 percent in a poll with a 3.9 percent margin of error.


This is great news for Gillespie’s campaign, since they were hoping to emulate the last minute upswing other Republican candidates – such as former Republican Sen. Scott Brown who is challenging incumbent Democrat Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire – are getting as the races draw down to the wire.

Gillespie has slowly but consistently narrowed the gap behind Warner since around September. He trailed by about 25 points before then and thus had a lot of ground to make up. It’s unlikely that he has climbed into the lead in just the few days since the poll was reported.

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“I think that the main factor is that Gillespie’s name ID has gotten better and so he shored up some of his Republican support, but his problem is that Warner still wins enough of the conservative vote in Virginia. Gillespie hasn’t fully cut that out, so that’s a problem,” said Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, which is based at the University of Virginia.

According to Skelley, Warner remains the most popular political figure in Virginia stemming from his term as governor from 2002 to 2006 (Virginia governors cannot serve consecutive four-year terms). While governor of the commonwealth, Warner built a “brand” as a competent moderate, working with a two-to-one Republican legislature to put together a financial package that turned the state’s deficit into a $1.2 billion surplus. Warner left for the Senate after beating his opponent – Jim Gilmore, also a former Virginia governor – by 65 percent to 34 percent in 2008.


Yet, that the polls were still moving fast in the final stretch of the campaign indicate that Virginia voters were still making up their minds.

For midterm elections, this is rather unusual. Undecided, or moderate voters, who have the potential to flip, are a key voting bloc in presidential elections, but much less so in midterms. Rather, most voters who make up the usually low midterm turnout tend to be largely more partisan, involved and usually decide on their choice early.

Virginia is bucking this trend, and the late shifts have caused Real Clear Politics to move the state’s Senate race from a likely Democratic victory to leaning Democrat. But as we’ve already seen in Virginia this year when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) lost to unknown Republican candidate Dave Brat in the primaries, it’s dangerous to put too much stock in polls.

Despite the race being contested in Washington, D.C.’s backyard and with the candidates both being consummate Beltway insiders raising large amounts of cash for their campaigns, Virginia’s race has generally been playing out on the sidelines of the nation’s focus as most experts don’t see it deciding which political party will control the Senate after the election.

Likewise, the issues and controversies that have come from the race have garnered little media attention and remain local controversies with little chance of swinging the race either way.

One such controversy is connected to reports last month last month that Warner had spoken on the phone to Phillip Puckett, former Democratic Virginia state senator, urging Puckett not to resign from his state senate seat.

Puckett’s daughter, Martha Puckett Ketron, was about to go through confirmation for a six-year term for a Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court judgeship, and due to Virginia’s nepotism laws, her father’s position as state senator would have prevented her from being confirmed.

Puckett indicated that he was going to resign. The Virginia Republican Party saw this as an opportunity to regain the senate, and allegedly offered Puckett a lucrative position as deputy director of the Virginia Tobacco Commission if he resigned. The Democrats, hoping to keep Puckett in his seat, allegedly offered to appoint his daughter to a position with Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s administration or push for a federal judgeship.

Despite the pressure, Puckett resigned his seat and did not take any of the positions offered to him, but as news of the politicking from both sides surrounding his resignation made headlines, the FBI launched an investigation.

According to The Washington Post, as the most influential Democrat in the state, Warner placed a call to Puckett and his son on behalf of Virginia’s Democrats, to try to convince Puckett not to resign. Warner’s spokesmen deny any wrongdoing, telling the Post that Warner was not in the position to offer, and did not mention, any jobs for Puckett’s daughter. The investigation is ongoing and Warner could be in serious trouble if evidence comes out that he did offer alternative positions for Ketron.

But with the little information still available about the incident, Gillespie’s attempts to hang the controversy around Warner’s neck, hasn’t worked.

Virginia’s Jewish population is small, making up about 1.12 percent according to data from the 2010 census compiled by the Jewish Data Bank. This is less than half the national average. Therefore, the candidates have done little to specifically target Jewish Virginians.

The platforms for both candidate do not mention views on Israel or foreign policy, which is strange, as Virginia is home to one of the largest defense industries in the country. Instead, both candidates focused on domestic issues like education, health care, energy, federal spending and tax policy.

Unlike Warner, Gillespie has no voting record, so it’s hard to determine where he personally stands. Gillespie’s campaign did not respond to numerous requests from Washington Jewish Week to answer questions.

As a sitting senator, Warner’s record shows him to be dependably pro-Israel, though not outspoken. Yet, he, too, doesn’t mention of Israel or foreign policy in his online campaign platform.

“If you look at foreign affairs, just in general, Sen. Warner has been fairly outspoken for tougher sanctions against Russia; he’s in favor of keeping all options on the table when it comes to ISIL [Islamic State of Syria and the Levant],” said David Turner, a Warner campaign spokesperson.

Turner pointed to Warner’s Senate website, which has a section dedicated to Warner’s statements and press releases on national security.

[email protected]   @dmitriyshapiro

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