Rebel With a Cause

Paul Goldman

Reading Dickie Cranwell's Mind

The former Democratic Majority Leader is said to be considering a run for state senate, and Gov. Warner regards him as key to his 2003 strategy. But there's more to this political chess game than meets the eye.


Let's 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 Thornton:

"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 added.)

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.


Chess 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.

Gambit Accepted

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.


In 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 backroom deal.

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 good doer.

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 crisis.

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 the Republicans.

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 wants action.

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.


Moreover, 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. Tim Kaine.

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 governor's.

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 equation.

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 running
and losing?

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 up forever.

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 respected legislator.

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 election outcome.

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. 2003.


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Paul Goldman, the Rebel With a Cause, was chief political strategist for the past two winning Democratic governors in Virginia and was credited with leading a "revolution in American politics" by The New York Times for his role in breaking America's 300-year-old color barrier in national politics.


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