The Romney camp has announced that Ed Gillespie will be joining the campaign as a senior adviser. This is good news for Republicans on multiple levels.
First and foremost, Gillespie is a smart, street-savvy Republican with a wealth of national experience both as head of the RNC and as a White House adviser. He was also chairman of and instrumental in the campaign of Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell in 2009. McDonnell won the state by nearly 20 points and carried the Northern Virginia suburban county of Fairfax, which had drifted into the Democratic camp.
When I interviewed Gillespie after McDonnell’s win, he articulated how a strong social and fiscal conservative can win in a purple state:
The race also demonstrates the ongoing appeal of fiscal conservatism, when well articulated. McDonnell says, “Overwhelmingly what I hear about [from voters] is that issues mattered.” Gillespie says that McDonnell did what national Republicans don’t do enough:
“We say we are for lower taxes. Vote for us, damn it! Figure it out! Bob explains he is for lower taxes because he wants to encourage more businesses and jobs. He is for charter schools because it makes all schools better. He is for offshore drilling because it can help plug the revenue hole and generate high-paying jobs. He spent a lot of time talking to independent voters about what is in it for them.”
That recognition that Republicans not only have to run on issues swing voters care about but articulate the rationale behind conservative policies will be critical for Romney.
In addition, Gillespie’s work at Resurgent Republic, a Republican polling and advocacy group, has given him valuable insight on how independent voters think about President Obama and the issues. Last summer, Gillespie told me what he had found in a series of focus groups:
He pointed to the views of Independents who had voted for Obama. He told me that while they like Obama personally and don’t hold him responsible for the economy, “they have to admit he hasn’t made it better.” These voters, he explained, think that Obama “took his eye off the ball” and see his lack of focus on jobs as “a sin of omission.” Moreover, Gillespie said that the most dangerous development for Obama many be that these voters think that “while he means well, he may be in over his head.”
He also noted that independents are especially concerned about Obamacare’s impact on job creation, a favorite Romney theme.
In other words, Gillespie has exactly the background Romney will need in helping to convey a conservative message to a center-right coalition.
Finally, the addition of Gillespie is a positive sign that the Romney camp is not as isolated or defensive as some imagine. They understood enough to go outside the Boston circle and grab someone with national experience and perspective. That recognition that Romney and the campaign must raise their game should reassure nervous party insiders.
Romney is beginning the general campaign in earnest. Gillespie is a sign he knows the margin for error is tiny.