Just got off the phone with Larry Sabato to check in about the Democratic Senate primary in Virginia last night, won by former Reagan official James Webb. Here’s what he’s thinking. “I’m surprised,” said Sabato, “because it’s so pragmatic. Democrats rarely do something so pragmatic and strategic.” Harris Miller was all over TV and radio, with plenty of mailings and phone calls to go with it. Webb had almost nothing, but still won. Sabato said it was the first time he can remember Democrats embracing a party switcher, since Leon Panetta in the 70’s. “This guy worked for Reagan, it’s amazing.”
What are Webb’s chances? “It’s a long shot.” The key factor is whether senatorial committee chairmen Charles Schumer pours millions into the race immediately. “Otherwise Allen will just cruise.” Webb could get away with a low visibility campaign in the primary–when such a small sliver of the electorate determined the outcome–but obviously can’t in the general election. “He’s got nothing. He’s bankrupt. Whereas Allen has $7.5 or $8 million in the bank.” Sabato continues: “Schumer has to put his money where his mouth is. He’s one of the reasons Webb got where he is now,” a reference to the endorsements from Democratic senators that helped put him over the top.
Schumer’s decision will say a lot about the Democrats’ ambitions this year. “Are they serious about trying for a majority, or are they trying just to pick up a few seats? If they are trying for the majority, they have to play in Virginia, Tennessee, and Arizona.”
There is a potential path to victory for Webb. It would depend on the unpopularity of Bush and the Iraq war in Virginia, and the association of Allen with both. The Iraq War isn’t even popular in Virginia’s 2nd District, the heavily military district around Norfolk and Virginia Beach. Also, Allen could suffer from voter irritation with his preparations to run for president in 2008, even as he campaigns for another six-year Senate term.
In light of this, Sabato thinks Allen’s trip this weekend to Iowa is a mistake, sending the wrong message right off the bat. He thinks it’s unwise for Allen to try to run a two-track campaign—nationally, for president; in Virginia for the Senate—but instead should focus exclusively for now on the Senate race. It actually works to his advantage the higher profile the Senate race is. “He benefits from elevating the race to national status. Then he will be seen by Republican activists as doing the same thing as John McCain, defending the president and defending the war.”
This is why it ultimately might benefit Allen that the weaker candidate, Miller, lost and Webb won. People would have tuned out an Allen v. Miller race. Allen v. Webb could get a lot of attention and allow Allen to increase his national profile in a helpful way, so long, of course, as he wins and performs strongly.