get out the Kings and pawns and follow the moves
pitting former Del. Richard Cranwell against Gov.
Mark R. Warner. I had not focused on this chess
match -- indeed had not thought they were matching
political wits -- until reading this paragraph in
the Saturday Roanoke Times by reporter Tim
"There are several potential Democratic
candidates for the Virginia Senate [Dickie Cranwell
and Ted Bennett for two] who aren't likely to run unless
Warner and the state Democratic party are willing to
mount the kind of campaign that's likely to take the
Senate back from the GOP." (Emphasis
Admittedly, this observation has been appearing in
newspapers for the last few months. But, suddenly,
it hit me: All the press speculation about Dickie
Cranwell running for the Senate seat being vacated
by Sen. Bo Trumbo, R-Fincastle, started as a clever
gambit by Cranwell, Ted Bennett, Chip Woodrum, Alan
Diamonstein, former Gov. Gerald Baliles, and others
to force a showdown with Gov. Warner over the
direction of his governorship and to avert a
political crisis in 2006.
gambits are as much about psychology as they are
about controlling the center of the board. Cranwell
and company are trying to read Warner's mind, and
vice-versa. So let's play their game for them.
Cranwell and company believe Warner has been
governing as Republican-lite, giving the GOP
majorities in the General Assembly little resistance
except when necessary to maintain a positive image
with Bush-oriented voters for a future run for the
United States Senate. The Cranwell forces believe
this approach threatens to produce disaster for
Virginia, an opinion that has reached the Third
Floor of the Capitol. Naturally, the GUV's people,
especially PAC Director Mame Reilly and the
soon-to-be-announced new Virginia Democratic Party chair. They
believe the GUV's approach has put Democrats in a
strong position to take back the Senate and intend
to lead that fight this Fall.
truth, they are looking at Virginia politics through
two different lenses. Cranwell believes statewide
politics consists of the sum total of the interests
of the 140 members of the General Assembly. Warner,
adopting the view of those of us who have run
statewide campaigns, sees Cranwell's myopia as
typical of those who became major players in
Richmond. No leader of the General Assembly has
become governor except L. Douglas Wilder. In
Warner's view, statewide politics is greater than
the mere sum of the 140 legislative parts.
Legislative powerbrokers tend to care little about
public opinion, feeling beholden only to views of
their General Assembly counterparts. This is why
they tend to be a deer in the headlights when forced
to confront public opinion directly, as was the case
when former House Speaker Vance Wilkins had to
address the problems related to the settlement of a
sexual harassment case. He just never understood the
statewide public relations dimension to his
situation, believing to the end that continued
support from the half-dozen key GOP legislative
heavyweights would allow him to weather the storm.
Thus, for example, Warner sees his fight for
"tax reform" as hinging on public support,
and he will soon take his case on the hustings.
Cranwell sees a successful "tax reform"
strategy as one rooted in twisting the arms of
enough legislators to pass a measure, with any
public opinion massaging as cover for the real
Warner, thought by Cranwell to be focused on a
future career in the nation's capitol, finds the
General Assembly a troublesome sideshow. Cranwell, a
creature of Richmond's Capitol Square, believes
Warner is too much the do-gooder, and not enough the
It is a fight as old as politics with no simple
right or wrong answer.
But one thing is certain: Cranwell and Company
believe Virginia is on the verge of a political
They are convinced Kilgore is going to be the next
Governor. How so? It is an extension of their
political history. In 1985, they all thought
Democratic Lt. Governor Dick Davis was too
"liberal." That is why they all backed
Jerry Baliles and tried desperately to stop Doug
Wilder, the ultimate "liberal" by their
definition, from being nominated in order to save
the 1985 ticket from certain disaster.
Eventually, they were forced to accept Wilder. But
they stopped Davis.
By their Davis standard, they privately believe Tim
Kaine is also far too "liberal" for
Virginia. Thus, they presume that Kilgore will get
elected in 2006. Never mind their
"perfect" candidates were Mary Sue Terry
and Don Beyer. But one thing the Old Guard has is a
belief in its knowledge of statewide politics
irrespective of election results.
That being the case, Cranwell and Company see 2006
as the nightmare scenario of huge GOP General
Assembly majorities and a Republican governor
passing a sweeping, unprecedented array of social
and tax legislation.
Whether true or not, perception is the key here.
Thus, Cranwell and Company are convinced the
fundamental fight in 2003 is about stopping Gov.
Kilgore in 2006, not helping Warner in 2004.
Accordingly, they see the need to challenge Warner
to join their fight to save the Commonwealth from
So, Cranwell offered Warner this gambit: Some of us
might run for the senate if you promise to be a full
partner in the fight, as only a governor and rich
guy can be.
Cranwell and Company see themselves as giving Warner
no choice but to either enlist in their cause or be
written off as another General George McClellan.
The Chess strategy
Accordingly, Cranwell plays his senate gambit,
letting the press speculate about his possible
"If the Governor is serious" candidacy,
feeling he has Warner trapped. What is Cranwell
thinking? He knows
the governor is under fire in the newspapers and in
Democratic Party circles for what the former
Majority sees as a Republican-lite, "I want you
to respect me in the morning" approach to
governing. Again, the political issue here is
perception. Warner knows he needs to fight that
image. But words alone are meaningless, as the press
Warner and his team are indeed eager to take the
Cranwell gambit so they can spread the word: The
Governor is doing everything he can to woo Cranwell,
the marque name for 2003, out of retirement and into
the race for the state senate.
this focus on Cranwell's alleged interest in
running, given his reputation as a shrewd vote
counter, further suggests that Democrats can indeed
win back the Senate in 2003 under Warner's
leadership. This is a political ten-stroke for the
governor in Democratic circles. Cranwell knows this.
So, he assumes Warner will grab the baton and start
lining up the most powerful Democratic team
available in 2003. It is best possible political
play for the Governor.
Warner's team figures the boss is in a win-win
situation. If Cranwell runs, then Warner has proven
he is a real Democratic governor. Should Cranwell
decline to run, Warner still can say he has done all
he could have for the Democrats.
Moreover, Cranwell is no political novice. He knows
full well that by offering the gambit, he has
exposed himself politically. He has raised the hopes
of Democrats across the state, many of whom see
Cranwell as gubernatorial timber.
Should he run and win the senate seat, Cranwell
almost surely would become the Majority Leader
should the party retake the Senate. That instantly
make would him a potential challenger to Lt. Gov.
But what if Cranwell runs, wins, but the Democrats
only wind up with 19 senators? This would make
Dickie the Democrat the GOP majority most loves to
hate. He would have the worst possible four years as
a rookie in the upper chamber, the kind of fate that
made him quit as Democratic minority leader of the
House of Delegates.
So, Cranwell could win a senate seat but lose the
election. Moreover, he could run for the senate and
lose that contest, puncturing the myth and leaving
him living in a popped political balloon for the
rest of his life.
Thus, should the gambit grow out of control, there
is a big risk for Cranwell if he runs, even if he
wins. But again: That's Dickie's problem, not the
Who has the checkmate move?
Warner seems to have the chess board advantage. All
he has to do is do everything the Roanoke Times
says the potential candidates want to him to do. It
would seem he could play this game blindfolded like
a chess grandmaster at an exhibition match playing
40 games at once.
So, Warner is in a no-lose position by pressuring
Cranwell to run. Once Cranwell announces he will
run, Warner will have solidified the perception that
he is doing everything he can to help the Democrats.
But this strong position does not produce a Warner
checkmate. Cranwell still can refuse to run and
blame the decision on Warner's failure to make the
necessary commitment to fight for a Democratic
majority. There is no way for Warner to prove
otherwise, assuming Cranwell strikes first and puts
out this explanation. In politics, you cannot
disprove a negative.
Surely, Cranwell must know he cannot look like he
was toying with Democratic hopes these many weeks,
nor can he afford to make it appear his refusal to
run is based on a fear that he is not as popular out
west as his supporters have been claiming.
Cranwell's image and future credibility are now at
risk, not just the governor's. Thus, it would seem
the only way for Cranwell to save his reputation
would be to put the blame squarely on Warner
In other words, Cranwell, to save his public image,
might have to hurt Warner's image.
Surely, both men have now realized this possible
What about Ted Bennett, who keeps going back and
forth over a possible run against incumbent GOP Sen.
Frank Ruff, R-Clarksville, for a Southside senate
seat? He is a close associate of Cranwell. Until
U.S. Rep. Virgil H. Goode, R-5th, came out full-bore
for Ruff, Mr. Bennett seemed to be a sure candidate
with a better than 50-50 chance to win.
But, like Cranwell, Bennett has to calculate the
risk vs. reward of a senate candidacy. He, too,
doesn't want to return to Richmond as a member of
the minority. Moreover, a tough campaign against
Ruff is likely to leave Bennett in the posture of
committing to support many of the GOP positions
opposed by Warner. Is all this worth the risk of
Yet Bennett is really playing Tonto to Cranwell's
Lone Ranger. So what will Cranwell eventually do?
I do believe that Cranwell is sincerely worried
about Kilgore winning and giving the GOP
unrestrained control over state government. For
sure, there are those who claim that there is a
working bipartisan majority in the state senate
under any 2004 scenario that would prevent any
extreme measures from being enacted.
But, surely, Cranwell and company do not want to
take that risk.
So, they see the benefit, if not the need, to mount
an all-out effort to elect as many Democrats to the
Senate as possible this year.
Thus, as rumored, there is little reason to doubt
they are driving a hard bargain with Gov. Warner
over how much time, money and staff he is prepared
to put into this fight. Logic says Warner has to
give them whatever they can reasonably, or even
slightly unreasonably, want. This is a no-brainer
for Warner, as I have discussed. So surely, he has
given them what they want by now.
At which point, they either have to put up or shut
In that regard, it seems to me that Cranwell may
have to run for the senate in order to maintain his
future credibility. Unless, of course, he is
prepared to run for governor, or at least lieutenant
governor, an option that has interested him in years
past. Running for statewide office would give him an
acceptable exit from the senate race.
Conventional wisdom says Cranwell could not beat Mr.
Kaine. But any look at the voting statistics
suggests otherwise. Cranwell would do well in the
west and in Northern Virginia, where he was a highly
Thus, any primary between Kaine and Cranwell would
likely hinge on Kaine's majority in the Richmond
media market and developments in Tidewater.
Put another way, the race comes down to two key
Democratic constituent groups: African-Americans and
labor. Not surprisingly, these are the base support
groups of another potential gubernatorial candidate,
Rep. Bobby Scott, D-3rd.
My bet: Cranwell has failed to fully appreciate how
his senate gambit would play out on a statewide
political basis. His candidacy has become a metaphor
for Democratic activist hopes this fall. Cranwell
was counting to 20, but the real math involved
thousands of party loyalists and countless media
stories across the Commonwealth.
Warner, more experienced in this public relations
dimension, saw the real equation from the beginning
and has used it to define his efforts to support a
Democratic comeback. But he may have failed to
appreciate that Cranwell may not be moved by
anything but counting 20 almost sure wins.
This, then, is the danger that both men face.
Cranwell would prefer to end up in an Iraqi prison
than spend four years as one of, say, 17 Democratic
senators. Ironically, the worse the Democrats figure
to do this fall, the more Warner actually needs
Cranwell to run to avoid post-elections complaints
about his failure to win back the senate.
Cranwell, therefore, can save the Governor from
embarrassment just by running. But Warner cannot so
easily return the favor since all his money may not
make any difference this fall in terms of the final
Thus, in the parlance of politics, Cranwell knows he
is in the worse position of the two. He has to go
first. A great dealmaker collects Accounts Payable,
not IOUs: He get his upfront and lets the other guy
try to collect later.
A tough politician like Cranwell hates to give such
a gift without an equal quid-pro-quo. But he may
have no choice in order to save his own credibility.
April 14, 2003
(c) Copyright. All rights reserved. Paul Goldman.