Former Republican Sen. John W. Warner on Monday endorsed his Democratic successor over a past national GOP chairman in the race for the U.S. Senate seat he held for 30 years.
Warner told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that he is supporting Sen. Mark Warner, who is being challenged by Ed Gillespie in November's election. The Warners are not related.
John Warner, a moderate, earned a reputation as a party maverick by bucking the conservatives who gradually won control of the GOP during his decades in office. He refused to endorse GOP home-schooling advocate Mike Farris for lieutenant governor and backed an independent candidate over Iran-Contra figure Oliver North in the 1994 race against Democratic Sen. Chuck Robb. But this is the first time he has endorsed a Democrat outright.
"There are times you must, I think, recognize that certain individuals are superior in their talents and in what they have done and can potentially do for your state," John Warner said.
He praised his successor, also a centrist, for seeking bipartisan solutions.
"Mark Warner, if I may say with a sense of humility, like John Warner crosses the aisle and makes things work," he said. "We come from the old school. The Senate works best when there's collaborative effort between the two parties."
John Warner also said it's important to keep the incumbent because he's had six years to learn how the Senate works and start to build seniority.
Mark Warner said he is grateful for his former opponent's support.
"John Warner is the gold standard in Virginia," he said. "I learned a lot of things from John Warner, but the most important is Virginia always comes first."
Gillespie said in a written statement: "I respect Senator John Warner for his service to our country and our commonwealth, and respect his right to support the candidate of his choice in this race."
John Warner, the former Navy secretary, defeated Mark Warner in the Democrat's first Senate campaign in 1996. Mark Warner, a multi-millionaire cellphone pioneer who had served as state Democratic Party chairman and helped run L. Douglas Wilder's campaign to become the nation's first black elected governor, lost by only 5 percentage points to the popular incumbent.
The surprisingly close race established Mark Warner as a rising Democratic star in a then-reliably Republican state. He was elected governor in 2001, then soundly defeated former Republican Gov. Jim Gilmore in 2008 for the Senate seat after Warner announced his retirement.
Gillespie chaired the Republican National Committee from 2003 to 2005. He also served as counselor to President George W. Bush and as an adviser to Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign. He faces a little-known candidate, Shak Hill, for the GOP Senate nomination.
"If he receives the nomination, Ed brings a lot of experience — but it's a different kind of experience," John Warner said. "I respect him — he's a fine person — so nothing negative about him at all. It will be a good, strong, two-fisted, competitive race."
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