Can Ed Gillespie win a Senate seat?

This post originally appeared on The Fix last week. We're bumping it up to the top now that Gillespie is making it official, launching a new campaign Web site today. Enjoy:

As our own Ben Pershing reports, former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie is set to announce that he will challenge Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) in 2014.

Gillespie is one of the more surprising recruits of the cycle, and Republicans are certainly happy to have him in a race in which they have struggled to recruit.

But does Gillespie actually stand a chance?

That's up for debate. The fact is that Virginia -- yes -- is a swing state, and anything can happen in a swing state.

But as swing state senators go, Warner is very popular. A Quinnipiac University poll in August showed the former governor with a 61 percent approval rating and just 25 percent disapproving. He even got net-positive marks from Republicans, 49 percent approved of him and 40 percent disapproved.

As members of Congress these days go, those are sterling numbers -- almost unheard-of.

Gillespie needs at least one of these two things, and probably both, to happen:

1) He needs the environment to be strongly behind Republicans -- so much so that the "D" behind Warner's name becomes a serious problem for him. Think the GOP wave of 2010.

and/or

2) He needs Warner to stumble -- badly. That's a pretty tall task, especially given Warner has served nearly a decade in public office and has been very popular throughout.

Now, it should be noted that with the exception of Warner's first successful campaign for office -- the 2001 governor's race -- he hasn't really been tested (Warner also lost a Senate race in 1996). Because he was so popular, he didn't really face a tough path to the Senate in 2008.

(He did face a fellow former governor -- Republican Jim Gilmore -- but Gilmore never got even close to making it a competitive race and, accordingly, never raised the kind of money he needed to contest Warner's coronation. Warner won by more than 31 points -- a stunning margin, really.)

As Dave Weigel notes, Gillespie and Republicans seem to think Obamacare could become such an albatross that it will eventually weigh down Democratic senators who weren't previously targeted.

It's true that sometimes a strong environment for one party can take down a senator who wasn't really on the map before -- think Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) in 2010, Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) in 2008 and Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) in 2006.

But none of these senators were nearly as popular as Warner less than a year out. Feingold was never overly popular, Stevens saw his numbers drop significantly early in the 2008 cycle, and Burns was far less popular than his Montana colleague, Democrat Max Baucus.

Indeed, the best comparison for Gillespie having a chance might be his own state's 2006 Senate race, in which an unknown named Jim Webb toppled popular Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) -- like Warner, a well-liked former governor.

Allen, you might recall, played a significant role in his own demise, along with Democrats having a great environment, of course.

Gillespie will probably need Warner to fall victim to something similar.

Correction: This post initially said Warner's 2001 campaign was his first. It was his second.

Originally posted Jan. 10 at 1:51 p.m.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix, the Post’s top political blog.
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