Arguing About the Past

As we hear almost daily, this year's elections are about change and the future. Yet the U.S. Senate race in Virginia is shaping up ...
by | June 9, 2008

Warner_4 As we hear almost daily, this year's elections are about change and the future. Yet the U.S. Senate race in Virginia is shaping up as an unusual referendum on the past performance of two former governors. That's not good news for one of them.

The Republican in the race, former Gov. Jim Gilmore, is leaking support even from prominent members of his own party. Gilmore's presidential run didn't even last into this year's balloting, and he nearly lost the GOP nod about a week ago to a relatively little-known legislator, carrying the party convention with a less-than-resounding 50.3 percent of the delegates.

Given all this, it's less a blow to Gilmore's fortunes than a sign of things to come that today two prominent Republicans, former state Senate Prez. John Chichester and former Virginia House Appropriations Committee Chairman Vincent F. Callahan Jr. -- who helped push through the car-tax cuts -- joined in a conference call with reporters to endorse the Democrat in the Senate race, former Gov. Mark Warner.

The Washington Post previewed the call today:

Callahan said Gilmore, Warner's GOP opponent, misled legislators and the public about the state's finances and the cost of his signature effort to eliminate the car tax when he was governor from 1998 to 2002.

"The figures Gilmore used were so utterly erroneous and far-fetched that they were mind-boggling," said Callahan, who helped Gilmore push his car tax proposal through the House of Delegates in the late 1990s.

It's no secret that 13th Floor denizens are fans of Warner, whom we named as one of Governing's Public Officials of the Year back in 2004 (along with Chichester). Warner's main achievement, in our eyes, was cleaning up the mess that he had inherited from his predecessor, Gilmore.

Gilmore's follies were many, but his main sins were budgetary. He ran and won in 1997 on a pledge to kill Virginia's car tax. He didn't quite succeed, but he cut the car tax enough -- without figuring out a way to pay for the cuts -- to cause Warner to abandon his own initial ambitions. Warner put his campaign promises on ice and spent his first two years in office cutting spending, before passing a big tax increase in his third year (with Chichester's help).

Warner managed to remain popular despite the big tax hike. His lieutenant governor, Tim Kaine, succeeded him and Warner is easily favored to win this year's Senate race. In fact, our colleagues over at CQ rate it the most likely Senate seat to switch party control this year.

It occurred to me after I read th Post story that all the talk about Barack Obama picking a Virginian as his running mate, whether Warner, Kaine, or U.S. Sen. Jim Webb, is probably a lot of hot air. Virginia will be a key contest in the presidential race, but it seems to me that Warner will do as much good for the ticket with his active campaigning for the Senate as any vice presidential running mate would.

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