In Virginia, US Senate race unusually low key

Senator Mark Warner
Senator Mark Warner

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — As a swing state that holds off-year elections, Virginia is used to marquee campaigns: National groups poured millions of dollars into last year’s heated matchup for governor between Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli, and presidential candidates give the state their full attention.

This year, though, the top of the ticket is decidedly lower key. The contest between Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Warner and Ed Gillespie lacks the animosity that colored last year’s governor’s race. And because polls suggest the race isn’t close, national groups have shown little interest.

“It really is an amazing contrast to a year ago,” said Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg.

Nationwide, the GOP is hopeful that President Barack Obama’s sagging approval numbers will help Republicans take control of the U.S. Senate. National groups have poured tens of millions of dollars into top-tier competitive races, including Alaska, Arkansas and North Carolina.

But Virginia, where polls have shown Warner with a consistent and commanding lead over Gillespie, has been home to a second-tier contest.

Farnsworth said there are several factors helping Warner, including the demographic shift that’s turningVirginia bluer — Democrats won all three statewide offices on the ballot last year — and the fact that Virginiapolitics have been singularly fixated for a month on the soap opera-like federal corruption trial of Republican former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen. Little-known challengers like Gillespie, Farnsworth said, need as much attention as they can get.

“When you look at the poll numbers right now, it’s going to take a great deal for the Republicans to pull it out,” he said.

But Gillespie, who began running his first set of TV ads in late August, said he’s undeterred by the race’s low wattage so far. The Republican challenger told reporters Aug. 25 before taking a tour of Whitestone Farm in Northern Virginia that he expects the race to tighten as it enters its final stretch.

“It’s August, and so most voters are really going to pay attention from Labor Day on. I’m not sure how much longer the (McDonnell) trial is going to go, but we’ll have ample time for us to get our message out for voters to lock in on this race,” Gillespie said.

“Senator Warner is obviously much more well-known than I am. This is his fourth statewide race. But with ads running and me introducing myself to the voters of Virginia, I think that’s going to change.”

Like Republicans in other states, Gillespie’s strategy has been to try to link Warner to the president as much as possible. In particular, Gillespie has been highlighting Warner’s vote in favor of the Affordable Care Act.

Warner, in turn, has tried to portray himself as a centrist who is one of only a few lawmakers willing to seek compromise.

Republican political consultant Chris LaCivita, who managed Cuccinelli’s campaign last year, said public polling should be viewed with a skeptical eye given how far off many polls were in last year’s race. McAuliffe won by less than 3 percentage points, a much smaller margin than several polls had suggested in the run up to the election.

LaCivita said a recently launched attack ad accusing Gillespie of being “everything that’s wrong with Washington,” paid for by an independent super PAC run by Warner supporters, is proof the race is closer than it looks.

“Mark Warner and his allies are attacking Ed Gillespie pre-Labor Day while at the same time trying to convey they are not in a competitive race,” said LaCivita, who is not affiliated with the Gillespie campaign.

But Michael Halle, an adviser to the Virginia Progress super PAC, said the new ad isn’t a sign of concern, but a needed public service. Halle said Gillespie’s first round of TV ads, which say Gillespie started three businesses but do not mention that those businesses include a lobbying and consulting shop, needed a rebuttal.

“Voters in the commonwealth deserve to know the truth about Ed Gillespie and his career as a corporate lobbyist,” he said.

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Associated Press writer Fred Frommer in Washington contributed to this report.

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