Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Democrats find a Marine (and this time it's not John Murtha)

Quick tip for you campaign junkies: Keep an eye on the '06 Senate race in Virginia.

It had long been assumed that incumbent Republican Senator George Allen -- a Reaganesque conservative; son of the late, lionized football coach; and likely '08 presidential candidate -- would cruise to an easy re-election victory in November, while barely needing to dip into his reported $7.6-million campaign kitty (the remainder of which could be used in a White House bid). But last night, in the Democratic primary to choose his challenger, voters came up with a potentially viable challenger -- somebody with a daunting portfolio who, at the very least, will make Allen work hard and spend a lot of that '08 money.

The Democratic winner is James Webb, an ex-Marine and best-selling author who served in Vietnam, who later served as Secretary of the Navy under President Reagan, and who considered himself a lifelong Republican until very recently. He has become a strong critic of President Bush (whom he voted for in 2000), especially on the war in Iraq.

Webb's victory -- easily beating the more liberal Harris Miller, a longtime Democratic activist -- suggests that Democratic voters, at least in red states, are becoming more pragmatic, siding with the candidate they deem most electable. Certainly, that's the goal this year of national Democrats, who have been promoting "fighting Dems" (antiwar vets) with mixed results this year; indeed, their DC Senate campaign arm backed Webb over Miller. And it's noteworthy that Webb ran strongest last night in the populous northern Virginia suburbs near Washington, where hardcore primary voters tend to be liberal.

Conservatives like Webb. Editorial writer Brendan Conway, writing yesterday at the pro-Republican website, lauded Webb as "an unimpeachable military man" who is "a demigod to several servicemen I know." (Theoretically, that profile could help Webb compete seriously with Allen for the votes of rural whites.) And a Virginia conservative at says that Webb "comes with a formidable record of service for his country. Unlike many Senate challengers, he comes with polished foriegn policy credentials, a populist style that has had many uttering the words 'Andrew Jackson' about his candidacy. "

But can he win statewide against a popular Republican, thereby improving the Democrats' prospects for taking over the Senate? It'll take big money to do that, for starters. Webb begins his campaign against Allen with only around $200,000 reportedly in the bank. We'll soon see whether the Washington Democrats put sufficient money in Virginia.

And we really don't yet know whether Webb -- who, Iraq aside, has conservative views on many issues -- can galvanize Democratics en masse in November; last night's turnout amounted to only 3.4 percent of the state's registered voters, and a lot of liberals are annoyed that Harris Miller, who had toiled loyally for the party, was denied what they feel he deserved. And Webb did poorly in the black community, thanks in part to the perception that he is not a big fan of affirmative action programs.

Nevertheless, a third-tier Senate race has been moved up a notch, and will serve as a test of whether an antiwar Marine with a Reaganesque pedigree can pull red-state voters into the Democratic column. That factor alone will make Virginia worth watching.