Mark Warner kicked off his Senate campaign last week and already hes fi ghting what I call the enthusiasm gap.
Its not that Democrats dont love him. They do. They really, really do.
Its that to many people his election to the Senate is a foregone conclusion. It feels like the campaign is just a courtesy dance on his way to the Senate chamber.
And lets be real, those people have good reason to assume that. Consider these facts:
– Warner is way ahead in the polls. An April poll by Rasmussen Research shows him winning with 55% of the vote. Other polls conducted last year put his margin of victory in the 20-point range. Its likely these polls show an artifi cially high lead and as the campaign goes on well see a closer race. But one thing is for sure: Mark Warner is the undisputed frontrunner.
– That same Rasmussen poll shows Warners favorable ratings at 65%. Th is estimate is likely spot on and not over inflated.
– Warner has nearly universal name recognition. Neither of his likely opponents can claim that at this point in the campaign.
– Warner has raised more campaign cash than any other Senate challenger. Th e latest estimates in the Washington Times show that Warner has $4.4 million cash-on-hand. Compared to his likely opponents, Warner is sitting pretty.
– Warner is running at a time when its good to be a Democrat in Virginia. His gubernatorial victory in 2001 paved the way for a tidal wave of Democratic victories. Okay, tidal wave may be a bit strong, but the Democrats have won two more signifi cant statewide races since 01, they took back the State Senate and increased their numbers in the House of Delegates.
– The Republicans have a potentially bloody nomination fi ght going on. It pits former Gov. Jim Gilmore against Del. Bob Marshall. Th e nominee will be picked at a convention. Thats the perfect place for an upset, especially for an underfunded candidate who is riding a wave of grassroots support. Bob Marshall is that candidate. Hes known for his anti-abortion, pro-marriage stances and could marshal his grassroots supporters to a surprise victory.
All of that has led a lot of national political observers and statewide politicos to assume a Warner victory. On every national list of the 2008 Senate races, Warner is always listed as the most likely to swap parties.
Does this foregone conclusion hurt Warner? Not necessarily, but it certainly doesnt help.
It can hurt him in raising money. Wealthy donors could figure Warner doesnt need their fi nancial support as much as Al Franken in Minnesota or Tom Udall in Colorado.
Likewise, Warners supporters may be less inspired to vote in November, again assuming it wont really matter since Warner has already won. A lack of urgency could impact all grassroots/volunteer activities from staffi ng events, getting people to the events, going door-to-door, identifying new voters, staffi ng phone banks, putting out yard signs, and getting out the vote.
The last prominent Virginia politician who entered a re-election fi ght 20 points up was George Allen. Initially, his opponent, Jim Webb, had no money, no campaign infrastructure, and no name recognition. He was nominated aft er a fairly nasty primary fight with Harris Miller. Allen and his team started to take his re-election for granted. So did his supporters. So did the media and the national pundits.
Then, one little slip up caught on video and posted on YouTube and Allens campaign unraveled. The underdog beat him.
It may be that the stars have aligned for a Warner victory in 2008.
But to getthere, Warner will have to overcome the enthusiasm gap. That could be his largest opponent.
Warren is the anchor of WSLS10 News in Roanoke.