U.S. Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) reported Thursday that he has raised only $500 in campaign contributions during the first three months of the year, fueling speculation that he may not seek a sixth term next year.
If Warner retires, Virginia could again become a key battleground in the fight to control the Senate as Republicans would be forced to hold on to a Senate seat they've had since 1979. Democrats control the Senate 51 to 49.
Warner, 80, has been coy about his political future in recent interviews, saying he would like to continue to serve but will ultimately do what he thinks is "best for Virginia." Among the candidates likely to be interested in succeeding Warner is Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.). On the Democratic side, national party leaders are talking to former Gov. Mark R. Warner.
In his quarterly filing to the Federal Election Commission, Warner reported raising $500 in January, February and March, but he spent 60 times that during the same period, according to the FEC. Warner has $667,272 in the bank.
"If I confirm my decision to seek reelection, I have every confidence that I will be able to raise sufficient resources and structure an organization to wage a vigorous campaign leading to Election Day in November 2008," Warner said in a statement released Thursday evening.
Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, said, "There are plenty of reasons to wonder about whether [Warner] is going to run again, and this just stokes the fire of speculation."
Matthew Miller, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Warner "will almost certainly" have raised the least amount of money of any of the 33 senators whose seats are up for reelection next year.
"You have to work hard to raise only $500," said Miller, who noted that Washington lobbyists often donate to incumbents who haven't announced reelection plans.
Of eight races Democrats are closely watching, Miller said, John Warner is the only politician who hasn't raised at least several hundred thousand dollars. Several incumbents who could be in especially tough races, such as Sen. Elizabeth H. Dole (R-N.C.), will report raising more than $1 million between January and March, according to news accounts.
Last year, Sen. James Webb (D) spent more than $8 million in his race against Republican George Allen, who spent about $15 million.
Warner, political experts say, would probably need to stockpile at least $8 million for his race, even if he faces a weak Democratic challenger.
Although polls indicate he is one of the state's most popular politicians, Warner, Democrats note, will be seeking reelection in a state that has voted for two successive Democratic governors as well as for Webb. And unlike 2002, when Warner ran unopposed, Democrats say they are promising to field a challenger against him.
"Somebody has got to take responsibility for the mess the country is in right now, and it is John Warner's party that has put us there," said C. Richard Cranwell, chairman of the Virginia Democratic Party.
In the statement Thursday, Warner said he is still "seriously considering running again for the Senate" and is "devoting my full attention to my Senate duties" including "caring properly for our veterans."
Rothenberg, who believes Warner still has plenty of time to raise money, said the Democrats will have a hard time challenging the senator.
"If John wants to serve another term in the Senate, he will . . . raise not one boatful, but two boatfuls of money, and the other top candidates would probably be scared away and he would be able to coast to reelection," Rothenberg said.
But Steve Jarding, a Democratic strategist who advised Webb last year, said Warner's fundraising report indicates "he doesn't have the fire in the belly" to run again. "All he had to do is a few big events, and when you don't do it, it seems a little strange," Jarding said.
Sensing an opportunity, national Democratic leaders are stepping up the pressure on Mark Warner, the second-longest serving senator in Virginia history.
New York Sen. Charles Schumer, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, has been meeting with Mark Warner to entice him to run, even if John Warner decides to seek reelection.
Even though the two are friends, Mark Warner declined to rule out such a bid on Wednesday. On the Republican side, Davis has indicated he might run for the Senate if Warner decides to step down. A source close to Davis said he will report raising more than $600,000 this quarter, the most he's ever raised in a three-month period. Allen, former Gov. James Gilmore and Rep. Eric Cantor are also mentioned as possible GOP candidates.
For now, however, the focus remains on John Warner.
In a speech to students at the University of Virginia last week, John Warner gave conflicting signals about his political future. Warner, the former chairman of the Armed Services Committee, told the students that his experience as a veteran of two wars and as a former secretary of the Navy are needed in Congress.
At one point, Warner reminded the students he's been in the Senate for 29 years.
"Don't you think it is time to go out and get an honest job?" he asked.