The race for the U.S. Senate in Virginia looks like a barnburner. In one corner stands Mark R. Warner, the incumbent, former telecommunications entrepreneur, one-term governor, former state Democratic chairman and the newest member of the Senate Finance Committee.
In the other, Ed Gillespie, former chairman of both the Republican National Committee and the party in Virginia, political adviser to presidents and a successful businessman who has never held elective office.
The contest pits a relatively untested contender with considerable potential against a champion who, while he doesn't exactly have a glass jaw, has usually fought below his weight.
A Harper Poll taken last week for the American Action Network shows a tight race already. Mr. Warner is polling under the crucial 50 percent mark, leading Mr. Gillespie 44 percent to 38 percent. Early polls are interesting mostly to the close followers of politics, but when an incumbent can't muster a majority, he's in trouble.
Mr. Warner's toughest race was his first, in 1996, against former Sen. John W. Warner. The campaign slogan "Mark Not John" was cute, but ultimately it didn't work. John Warner defeated him decisively. The losing race nevertheless set him up to make a race for governor.
Mark Warner won that race against an underperforming Republican candidate with just 52 percent of the vote. After campaigning as a moderate conservative, Mr. Warner governed left, pushing the Virginia General Assembly to pass the largest tax increase up to that time in the history of the commonwealth.
But he left office with a strong state economy, and was the natural Democratic candidate in 2008 when John Warner retired from the Senate. His surname helped. Some voters no doubt thought they were voting for John, not Mark.
Mark not John defeated a former Republican governor who couldn't raise the money he needed to make the race competitive, and the Democrat prevailed. The Barack Obama nobody knew, promising hope, change and a scarcity of cronies in high places, carried the state and Mark Warner with him.
This year, Mark Warner faces an opponent who should be able to match his fundraising dollar for dollar. Mr. Gillespie is well-known and well-liked, knows how to raise money for a campaign, and relishes the opportunity to unify a fractured party frustrated and disappointed by losing.
He's not angry at anybody and nobody seems to be angry at him. His swift rise in the early polls testifies to that. A lot of people are angry at the man at the top of Mark Warner's party, which augurs for collateral damage.
Mr. Warner will be saddled with his record, including his endorsement of Obamacare. However much he might like to have that endorsement back, he can't, and the television commercials are already reminding Virginians that Mr. Warner swallowed and repeated the president's phony promise that anyone who liked his health insurance could keep it. Mr. Gillespie begins his campaign with a clean slate.
November is a long way off, and a 6-point lead in an early poll is no insurance at all. A Gillespie gaffe could swing it the other way. But events, and Mr. Gillespie's boldness in getting into a race that some of the professionals advised him not to attempt, have made Virginia a state to watch.
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