Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), long one of the leading Republican voices on foreign affairs, will answer one of the key questions looming over the battle for control of the Senate in 2008 when he announces his reelection plans Friday afternoon on the north steps of the University of Virginia’s famed Rotunda.
Virginia and national political officials have been waiting with anticipation for Warner’s decision, which could give Democrats a tempting pickup target should Warner choose to retire. But aides say Warner, who is 80 years old, hasn’t revealed his decision to anyone but his family.
“Charlottesville is an important place to him. It’s a place where he’s spent serious amounts of time whenever he’s made announcements of importance,” said Warner’s chief of staff Carter Cornick.
Warner has served as an elder statesman in the Senate from his perch as ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee. Last week, he called for a partial withdrawal of troops from Iraq by the end of the year, offering political cover for other Republicans looking to distance themselves from the Bush administration.
Despite his high-profile legislative role, Warner has shown little activity on the political front. He only raised $72,000 in the second quarter, and he hasn’t put together any kind of campaign infrastructure in preparation for a reelection bid in 2008.
“He has absolutely not done one thing that indicates he plans to stay,” said Cook Political Report senior editor Jennifer Duffy.
If Warner retired, it would ignite a scramble for the open seat and likely set up a competitive GOP primary that would highlight the rift between moderates and conservatives statewide.
Both Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore have already begun to lay the groundwork for a campaign should Warner retire. Each has spent the summer visiting Virginia communities and talking to Republicans about their unstated-but-obvious political ambitions.
Davis has gone the furthest in preparing for a race, having banked over $1 million in his campaign account. He has also signed up veteran Virginia operatives to lead a possible bid.
“I hope tomorrow Sen. Warner announces he is seeking reelection. That would be good news for Virginians and all Americans,” Davis said Thursday.
Davis, who hails from the Washington suburbs in Northern Virginia, has already been crisscrossing the state in preparation for a Senate bid. He has argued that to win statewide, the party needs to nominate a centrist Republican that can carry fast-growing, Democratic-leaning areas of the state.
Davis has a record of success in his own congressional district, which only narrowly voted for President Bush in 2004. He has not faced serious opposition since first elected and has tended closely to constituent service issues affecting the federal workforce.
His voting record has been among the most centrist of House Republicans, and he has split with the administration on the surge in Iraq and over federal funding for stem cell research.
But many downstate Republican primary voters would look askance at a moderate candidate from the Washington suburbs, according to veteran Virginia GOP consultant Craig Shirley. Shirley said that Davis is further damaged by being a Washington insider at a time when public opinion of Congress is at an all-time low.
“Davis is a card-carrying member of the Republican establishment,” said Shirley. “Anyone who’s associated with the GOP establishment is held in minimum regard by primary voters.”
Gilmore, fresh off a short-lived presidential campaign, would be the likely front-runner among conservatives.
He has twice won statewide election as governor and attorney general, and gained a reputation as a social and fiscal conservative during his tenure. But after a rocky stint at the Republican National Committee and an inausicious presidential bid, he has fallen out of favor with some party insiders.
“Gilmore has a following among conservatives in the party, but he’s not a beloved figure in the party,” said Duffy.
Complicating matters is the nomination process, which could be determined by a coterie of party activists at a nominating convention. Party conventions traditionally favor candidates who cater to base voters, and could blunt Davis’ financial advantage.
On the Democratic side, former Gov. Mark Warner has also shown interest in the seat. Having backed off his presidential run last fall, Warner is known to be eager to get in the political arena. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is wooing him, and Warner has indicated that he’ll strongly consider a run should the seat become vacated.
Democrats view the Old Dominion as an emerging battleground at the national level. While Bush won 54 percent of the state’s vote in 2004, the fast-growing suburbs of Northern Virginia have caused the state to trend in a more Democratic direction in recent years.
Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) carried Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties – all former Republican strongholds – with 57 percent of the vote in his defeat of incumbent Republican Sen. George Allen last November.
If a Democrat won the seat, it would mark the first time Democrats have controlled the Virginia governorship and both Senate seats since January 1970.
Richard Cullen, Jonathan Martin and Patrick O’Connor contributed to this story.