By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor, and Andrew Jenner, publisher
Overshadowed by the presidential campaign and other expensive and hotly-contested U.S. Senate contests, both Democratic Sen. Mark Warner and his Republican challenger Daniel Gade seem OK with running in an under-the-radar race.
For Warner, it has meant focusing more on helping other Democratic candidates and the party’s brand. For Gade, it has meant quietly connecting with voters across Virginia and establishing some independence from those who have embraced fringe conspiracy theories, chiefly the QAnon conspiracies.
“It’s some internet, dark underbelly nonsense,” Gade said at a town hall meeting in Harrisonburg on Tuesday. “I’m hoping it will fade out and go away.”
Gade and Warner made separate appearances in Harrisonburg just hours apart Tuesday as their race – considered by most pollsters a shoe-in for Warner – entered its final week. In an election season altered by the COVID-19 pandemic, it marked a rare instance where the two opponents criss-crossed each other in the Valley. Both candidates have had to rely far more on virtual and distance campaigning than the traditional town halls, rallies and old-fashioned door-knocking this fall.
Warner, delayed by traffic on I-81, spoke to a crowd of several dozen behind the Harrisonburg Democratic Committee, focusing more on the presidential election and policy issues than his opponent.
“Every day, you wake up and you say, ‘oh my gosh, what is going to greet us in the news? What kind of new outrage?'” Warner said. He cited the president’s mishandling of the pandemic and purported insults against fallen service members as recent examples.
That evening, also delayed by traffic on I-81, Gade participated in a town hall at JMU’s Memorial Hall that was sponsored by JMU’s Dukes Vote and broadcast on Facebook Live. A 25-year veteran of the Army was wounded twice in combat, Gade cast himself as a career servant who is challenging a career politician.
“I think that my life demonstrates that I have always been a servant of the Constitution,” he said.
In responding to questions submitted by the live and virtual audiences, Gade, now a professor at American University, outlined some positions not held by all members of his party. Those include his embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement, a call for the Republican Party to return to its roots as the party of civil rights by fighting racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and brushing aside as “awfully weird” the QAnon conspiracy theory.
Gade also criticized Senate Republicans for blocking Merrick Garland’s confirmation vote when nominated to the Supreme Court during an election year by President Barack Obama, while applauding this week’s confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett, barely a week prior to this upcoming election. He argued that the Constitution gives presidents the right to nominate justices – and the Senate the responsibility to consider them – regardless of when during a president’s term a vacancy arises.
Warner, however, denounced his Republican colleagues for moving ahead with Barrett’s confirmation, which he said jeopardizes the Affordable Care Act (ACA). This was also one of the few issues where Warner referenced his opposition to Gade.
“I have great respect for his service to our country, but there is only one law in the country that protects people with preexisting conditions. It is the ACA,” Warner said. “You cannot spend months on end attacking me, being one of the key votes in protecting the ACA, and then somehow say, ‘oh, I want to keep protections for preexisting conditions. I want to keep young people on their parents’ programs until you’re 26.'”
Warner’s apparent lack of anxiety about the race was echoed by some of those in attendance on Tuesday.
“The Republicans knew Warner was going to win from the beginning, and so they didn’t spend much time with [the race], and his competition is nowhere,” said Harrisonburg resident Ann Held, who volunteers for the Democratic committee. “When we were still a red state, Warner came in and was governor, then senator, so he broke down those distinctions. And I think a lot of people have been voting for Warner for years, so I think that’s why it’s just sort of a given.”
Even so, “you can’t take anything for granted,” she warned.
In campaign fundraising, which is just one measure of support and interest, Warner has spent nearly $14 million while Gade has raised and spent about $4 million, according to this week’s campaign finance reports. In comparison, total spending in the U.S. Senate races in Iowa and North Carolina surpassed $200 million in each state, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Speaking to The Citizen after the town hall event, Gade acknowledged the long-shot nature of his race, but said that he considers it an advantage to campaign outside the limelight. He said he believes his message and past record of service to the country is resonating with Virginians, and sees ticket splitting as his path to victory as a Republican in an increasingly blue state.
“I think that my life demonstrates that I have always been a servant of the Constitution,” said Gade
Warner, who was very nearly upset in 2014, acknowledged that while Harrisonburg is generally friendly territory, he’s not nearly so popular in surrounding Rockingham County. In 2014, he won just 26 percent of the county vote. That being the case, he made sure to talk up his record of bipartisan collaboration.
“I’ve had a career in business, and the way you get things done in business is you find common ground,” Warner told The Citizen. “I think a lot of people in the Valley remember my time as governor, when Virginia was independently named best managed state and best state for business.”
He said his effectiveness is also proven by his participation as vice-chair of the Select Committee on Intelligence, and the 55 bills he’s written that have become law.
“In August the president signed a bill that will make record investments in our national parks … ten thousand jobs will be created right here in Virginia,” Warner said. “Just last week, the president signed my legislation to give additional mental health support for our veterans, so we can end the tragedy of veteran suicide … I hope people will look at that record of getting things done, they’ll look at my support for poultry, for agriculture, [and] my efforts on the hemp bill, which I think are important for folks here in the Valley.”
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