Warner vs. Gillespie in Virginia Senate debate

Predicting the effect of debate performances on political races is always tricky, but there aren’t too many observers who doubt that Republican Ed Gillespie handily won the first debate against incumbent Democrat Senator Mark Warner in Virginia this weekend.  Warner is currently ahead by 10 points in the polls, which isn’t an overwhelming lead for an incumbent, especially if this shapes up to be a “wave” election year for the Republicans.  If debates matter at all, this one ought to shift those polls a bit.

The entire debate, courtesy of PBS News Hour, appears below.  It’s very long, and unfortunately the audio is a bit soft:

Warner’s biggest problem is strategic: this is not a good year to be the guy who votes with Barack Obama 97 percent of the time.  Note to other Democrat incumbents: you’re not going to slip out of a record like that by claiming it’s some misleading statistic.  Your opponent is going to nail you to the wall by challenging you to explain exactly which parts of the Obama agenda you’ve done anything meaningful to block.

Some Democrats are putting on a big show of distancing themselves from the unpopular President – for example, Senate candidate Natalie Tennant in West Virginia, where the debate between Warner and Gillespie was actually held.  Tennant is pretending to be a tough fighter for the coal industry against Obama’s dedicated efforts to destroy it, a point she amusingly makes in a campaign ad by throwing a switch that turns off the lights in the White House, and sneering “Where do they think their electricity comes from?”

It’s nonsense, of course – every Democrat is a lockstep Obama vote on every issue that matters, period – but it’s funny, and you can see where voters who aren’t paying attention to current events might fall for it.  Mark Warner puts up no such entertaining pretense.  The only time Warner really perks up during this debate is when it’s time to lay some “War on Women” voodoo on Gillespie, by claiming he wants to outlaw contraceptives and abortions.  Sometimes an incumbent can win by coasting with stuff like that, but this doesn’t seem like an election year with a lot of easy downhill slopes to coast upon.

Consider CNN’s summary of the core issues in the Warner-Gillespie debate:

On one side: Gillespie’s branding of Warner as a political lapdog for President Barack Obama who’s responsible for job-killing policies and who promised to be independent ??? but is not.  On the other side: Warner’s attacks against Gillespie’s resume that includes lobbying and stints in Republican Party partisan posts.

In 2014, one of those attacks is going to land a lot harder than the other.  How many “gettable” swing voters really think “lobbying and stints in Republican Party partisan posts” is worse than being “a political lapdog for President Barack Obama?”  Who’s going to applaud when Warner mumbles something about “fixing” ObamaCare?  That’s not easy terrain to defend.  Neither is Obama’s manufactured border crisis, which came up during the debate.  Incumbents can win on dangerous issue terrain by playing defense, but it’s a risky strategy this time around.  Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman, doesn’t seem like the sort of candidate who will helpfully self-destruct in the hone stretch.  This could be an interesting race.