A pseudo-moderate flirts with moderation

Last week, Senator Mark Warner appeared in the “center seat” on Fox News’s “Special Report. I didn’t find Warner particularly impressive. He seemed to talk mostly in circles.

Presumably, Warner appeared on the show for the same reason that the more impressive Senator Joe Manchin had appeared a week or so earlier — to brandish his credentials as a moderate Democrat. Warner has belatedly attempted to create such credentials by calling for sanctions on Iran and by seeking (and obtaining) a temporary “hardship” exemption to Obamacare for people who find its health insurance plans too expensive.

Warner and Machin help illustrate the two faces of political “moderation.” Machin is a moderate (though his moderation is overrated) by virtue of passionately taking positions that, collectively, can be seen as approaching the middle of the road. Warner’s alleged moderation has consisted of taking consistently liberal positions dispassionately.

But suddenly there is substance, albeit slight, to Warner’s moderation. Why?

Michael Barone offers a plausible explanation:

I wonder whether Warner isn’t seeing some bad poll numbers. . .For Warner, bad numbers would not mean that he is running behind anyone (as Arkansas Democrat Mark Pryor is in a recent Republican poll) or running even with a challenge.

Bad numbers for Mark Warner would be running significantly below 50 percent against a lesser-known challenger running farther behind. Such numbers would indicate that Warner, who has had every reason to expect he will win a second term without breaking a sweat, could have a competitive race.

If Warner is seeing bad poll numbers, they are likely driven primarily by Obamacare — for which Warner provided the 60th vote. Hence the need to seek the “hardship” exemption.

Barone also notes that the administration’s Iran agreement is are getting negative responses in national polls, and thus presumably in the bellwether of Virginia. Hence the desirability of backing sanctions legislation.

Do Republicans have any realistic hope of defeating Warner? As Barone notes, Democrats won all three statewide offices — governor, lieutenant governor and, by a hair, attorney general — this year.

But this year’s election took place under the immense shadow of the government shutdown. But for that event, widely deplored in Northern Virginia, the fast-closing Ken Cuccinelli might have been elected governor, and the Republican candidate almost certainly would have been elected attorney general.

Next year’s election is likely to take place under the shadow of Obamacare. Thus, the Republicans may have a shot at Warner’s seat.

Republicans need a strong candidate of their own, of course. They may have one in Ed Gillespie, former Republican National Committee Chairman. Accordingly to Barone, Gillespie “would likely be well funded, and he has a pleasant personality and demeanor, as well as a command of the issues that is comparable to Warner’s.”

However, it’s not clear that, even assuming Gillespie decides to run, the Republicans will nominate him. Republicans may select their nominee through a convention rather than a primary, as they did this year. A Bush loyalist like Gillespie might not fare well at a convention, where the hard core right, rather than the center-right, tends to dominate.

Even if the Republicans nominate Gillespie, my sense is that Warner will be reelected unless 2014 turns out to be a pro-Republican wave election of the order of magnitude of 1994 and 2010.

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