The biggest race to be decided in Virginia this year is the election for U.S. Senate. Whether you agree with his policies or not, Democratic Senator Mark Warner is almost certainly the most popular politician from either party in the state. However, plagued by his support for Obamacare and rising discontent over President Obama, Warner isn’t as invincible as he proved to be in 2008. This year he faces two challengers, Republican Ed Gillespie, who previously served as the chairman of both the Republican Party of Virginia and the Republican National Committee, and Libertarian Robert Sarvis, who pulled 6.5% of the vote last year when he ran for governor.
So what do the poll numbers say? Well, the latest poll, held by the Watson Center for Public Policy at CNU, shows that Warner has a 22 point lead over Gillespie with Sarvis taking 5% and the remaining 11% undecided. This poll is not some kind of outlier, instead being fairly consistent with previous ones. For example, the CBS/NY Times poll, which ended on September 2nd, had the race 51% Warner -39% Gillespie and the late July Hampton University poll showed the race with 53% Warner -28% Gillespie -5% Sarvis or 55%-32% if Sarvis is excluded. The Republican Party of Virginia claim that “in most polls Mark Warner is struggling to break 50 percent” might be wishful thinking, but it simply isn’t true according to a vast majority of the polls I’ve seen in the last three months.
Now, I’ve heard it said that Ken Cuccinelli faced similar poll numbers last year against Terry McAuliffe last year and, given that race was decided by 2.5%, victory for Gillespie is still possible. However, looking back at the statistics, by early September how many times did McAuliffe reach or crack the 50% mark? The answer is zero, not even once. Only in October did he enjoy such high polling.
Unfortunately, the statewide 2013 race devolved into a contest begging voters who was the lesser of two evils; both McAuliffe and Cuccinelli had fair numbers of detractors among their own party faithful. Compared to last year, as the latest poll indicates, Warner loses only 9% of the Democrats while more than double the number of Republicans (20%) do not favor Gillespie. These numbers aren’t terribly surprising, for I’ve heard complaints about Gillespie from many traditional Republicans in the state. The simple truth is that the Virginia GOP is heavily fractured right now and, in general, the liberty wing of the Republican Party doesn’t support Ed Gillespie as he has painted himself as a fairly standard big government Republican. As a result, at the end of the day some Republican votes will go to Warner, some will go to Sarvis, and some will simply stay home. Unlike the last election, where exit polls showed that more Democrats voted for Sarvis than Republicans, given Warner’s popularity and Gillespie’s lukewarm support in GOP circles, I predict Sarvis will see far fewer Democratic votes but will find a noticeable upsurge from the traditional Republican base.
So, on November 4th will Gillespie get blown out by 22%? I don’t believe so.
Is the Senate race over? Well, that depends on your perspective. Polls have been wrong before, but, given past trends, I expect the race to tighten a little and, barring any major surprises, at the end of the day Warner will emerge the victor by 6-12%. If I had to offer a prediction today, Warner will beat Gillespie by about 9%. With that said, Gillespie’s campaign does have value to the GOP as it has forced the Democrats to spend money in Virginia, as opposed to elsewhere, and thus will improve the chances for a Republican controlled Senate after these elections. However, anyone who has their heart set on saying “Senator Gillespie” will almost certainly be disappointed.
Therefore, with Virginia’s Senate seat not really being in play, the most important question left to be decided is, how will the Republican, Democratic, and Libertarian Parties use this election to bolster their volunteers and support network for the 2015 elections when Virginians go to the polls to determine every single seat in the Virginia General Assembly?