During Monday night’s Virginia U.S. Senate debate between Democratic U.S. Senator Mark Warner and Republican Ed Gillespie that took place in Richmond, Warner flitted around the issue of Puckettgate, the black cloud that is now hanging over Richmond concerning Democratic State Senator Phil Puckett’s resignation earlier this year. Puckett’s leaving handed control of the senate to Republicans and blocked Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe’s hopes to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (see Warner, Gillespie spar over Puckett scandal, energy, Ebola).
The reasons for what played out are varied (see Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial Warner should come clean):
A lot was moving around in the dark at that time. Puckett’s daughter was being blocked from a judgeship by Senate nepotism rules. Republicans tried to encourage Puckett to retire by offering him a high-paying job on the state’s tobacco board. When federal officials got wind of that, they launched a corruption investigation. Democrats, pointing to the public disgrace of former Gov. Bob McDonnell over corruption charges, screamed bloody murder about the perfidy of it all. McAuliffe called Puckett “despicable.”
Perhaps the seriousness of the issue came through in Warner’s demeanor during the debate. Usually upbeat and smiling, he was almost gritting his teeth while responding when Gillespie brought up Puckett. It was merely brainstorming, Warner said. The Times-Dispatch picked up on that:
Now comes word (again from The Post) that Virginia Sen. Mark Warner also got involved. Warner called Puckett’s son, Joseph, and over the course of an hour discussed several job possibilities for Puckett’s daughter — including even a federal judgeship, a post for which she would seem underqualified. A spokesman for Warner says the senator simply “brainstormed” with Joseph Puckett.
Really? Is that what they’re calling it these days?
As opinion writer Jennifer Rubin wrote in her Right Turn column at the Washington Post, it was Warner’s debate from hell, the exact one he didn’t want (see Mark Warner’s debate from hell):
Let’s get this straight: A U.S. senator calls up the child of a state senator on the verge of a critical decision as to whether resign from the senate (and thereby shift control to the Republicans) right around the same time the Democratic governor’s chief of staff Paul Reagan also left a message about a potential state job for the state senator’s daughter. (Unlike Warner, Reagan has since apologized.) So many important people playing career guidance counselor to the same state senator’s children — odd, isn’t it? Really, voters can tell when pols are trying to evade blame for misbehaving, and this sure seemed like just such an episode.
Frankly, Warner seemed ill at ease and frustrated that the pesky issue of corruption had popped up on his stroll to re-election. Gillespie did not overplay his hand, abiding by the rule that you never interfere with an opponent in the midst of self-destructing. (Afterwards Gillespie told reporters, “The senator did not respond to the questions that I think are out there. This brainstorming session, was that just a coincidence that came at the same time as the call from the governor’s chief of staff. I’ll leave that for others to decide, but I do find it deeply troubling.”)
“Ill at ease and frustrated.” Warner at times even seemed almost snarly.
The Warner team was probably trying to figure out how he could deflect the Puckett issue in pre-debate meetings. Imagine a room full of consultants surrounding the senator coming up with strategies to downplay this very lethal and growing issue — brainstorming, if you will. One says he heard that Gillespie signed a Grover Norquist no-tax pledge. Another says, no, it was just a letter from Norquist thanking Gillespie for meeting with him and agreeing to not advocate new taxes. A little ploy is dreamed up to have the senator use this as his detractor issue to try and make an untrue statement stick to Gillespie. Yeah, that’s it! Pledge. That becomes the key word of the debate for Warner. As Rubin noted:
Warner was clearly trying to be aggressive, “accusing” Gillespie of signing Grover Norquist’s anti-tax hike pledge. Happy to be labeled a tax hike opponent, Gillespie explained he didn’t sign the pledge, but instead had explained to Norquist’s group his opposition to tax hikes. Gillespie attacked Warner as a rubber stamp for Obama; Warner attacked Gillespie as a former lobbyist.
But Gillespie had done what he intended — drawn blood and forced Warner to descend into a fight about the gap between his reputation (a carry-over from Warner’s days as governor) and his actions. If the race narrows soon, it will be because Warner has been tarnished by a skilled and persistent opponent.
Suddenly we had Warner-the-battler standing in front of us making the untruthful pledge accusations even as Gillespie protested and laughingly suggested Warner produce the proof. Warner, of course, was unable to do so because there was no proof — it hadn’t happened.
These may be signs of desperation from Warner. With three weeks to go and the polls tightening — Gillespie has overcome a 30-point deficit and is now polling just 10 points behind — Puckettgate is not something the Warner campaign wanted to happen. Don’t give up on the Republican. Former George W. Bush press secretary Dana Perino has said for weeks that Ed Gillespie was the tortoise in this race, referring to the fable, “The Tortoise and the Hare.” With Puckettgate hanging overhead, anything is possible.