When Jim Webb scored an upset victory against Republican incumbent George Allen in last year's Virginia Senate race, he instantly achieved "rock star" status in Democratic circles. Webb's triumph was widely interpreted as a political thunderbolt, proof that electoral trends are shifting in the Old Dominion, and positioning the freshman Senator as a future presidential contender, or (perhaps) a Vice-Presidential nominee in 2008 or 2012.
Barely eleven months after Webb's Senate victory, it appears that the bloom is off the political rose, so to speak. A new SurveyUSA poll finds Virginia residents almost evenly split on Senator Webb's job performance. According to the survey, 46% of Virginians approve of Webb's performance, while 42% disapprove. By comparison, the state's retiring senior senator, Republican John Warner, has a job approval rating of 65%, a figure that's been consistent during much of his 30-year career.
Both Mr. Webb (and the Newport News, VA Daily Press, which analyzed the poll) attributed the low numbers to his status as a junior senator, trying to "make himself known" to constituents. According to the Daily Press (gag alert) "Webb's national fame has yet to translate into broad support among Virginia voters." Senator Webb told the paper that he hasn't seen the SurveyUSA poll, but was "not surprised" by the findings.
"I'm doing what I think needs to be done," he said. "I think people are still beginning to get to know me."
And that may be the problem. As Spook86 has noted in past posts on Mr. Webb's meteoric rise, Virginians have learned a lot about their millionaire lawyer and novelist-turned-senator over the past 18 months, and many find him lacking. For starters, there was the baseless campaign smear against George Allen, accusing him of using the "n" word to describe black teammates during his days as a college quarterback. Or, using his son--a Marine then serving in Iraq--as a campaign prop, campaigning across the state while wearing the younger Webb's combat boots.
But Senator Webb was only getting warmed up. Even before taking the oath of office, he had a celebrated dust-up with President Bush at the White House. When Mr. Bush asked how Webb's son was doing in Iraq, Webb turned the query into cheap political theater, responding that he wanted his son home. To his credit, President Bush replied, "I didn't ask you that; I asked how your son was doing." Details of the private conversation were promptly leaked to the press, along with Webb's admonition that he wanted to "slug" the President. By all accounts, the source for the story was none other than Jim Webb.
Once in office, Mr. Webb quickly aligned himself with the Kennedy-Schumer-Pelosi wing of the Democratic Party, pledging to work for "economic fairness," and to force a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq. But on those "cornerstone" issues, Webb has come up a bit short. His proposal to limit troop deployments was widely rejected by the Democrat-controlled Senate, which also defeated his plan to provide higher G.I. Bill benefits for recent military vets.
During that stretch, Webb also had a Meet the Press smackdown with South Carolina's Lindsey Graham, affirming his reputation as a Senate hothead who doesn't mesh well with his colleagues, and has trouble getting things done. Webb's inability to pass the G.I. Bill increase is particularly telling; six years into the War on Terror, passage of that bill--authored by a senator who is a genuine war hero--should have been a slam dunk.
Webb's early travails in the Senate haven't been lost on his constituents, and that's a big reason for his middling poll numbers, although his friends at the Daily Press won't tell you that. In fact, Webb seems to be out of his element in the go-along, get-along world of the United States Senate. When a reporter suggested that he might be a Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee next year, Webb broke into a wide grin, downplaying the possibility, but refusing to rule it out.
Barely 10 months into his Senate term, Jim Webb already sounds like someone who's ready to move on--with good reason. It's a long way to 2012, but a 42% disapproval rating won't get you re-elected in Virginia, or any other state. Many voters in the Old Dominion know Jim Webb well enough, and they don't like what they see. Assuming that the negatives remain high--and Senator Webb certainly has the political "style" to achieve that goal--his 7,000 vote plurality against George Allen could easily morph into a major defeat the next time around.
Republicans shouldn't be over-confident. After all, if George Allen had run anything approaching a competent campaign, he'd still be in the Senate. But Jim Webb remains a polarizing figure, a politician who doesn't resonate with large numbers of Virginia voters. From what they've seen so far, Webb isn't "playing in Poquoson"--and lots of other communities in the Old Dominion. The GOP should do whatever it can to remind voters of that fact.
ADDENDUM: Along with his lack of civility and new found liberalism, Jim Webb was also hurt by the "gun gaffe" earlier this year. When an aide attempted to carry Webb's handgun into a Senate office building--and was detailed by police--the Senator initially refused to acknowledge that the weapon was his own. In a state where gun rights are considered important, Webb's "weasel" response was viewed as an act of personal cowardice.