ROANOKE — In a victory for establishment Republicans, political strategist and former lobbyist Ed Gillespie handily secured the GOP nomination at the party’s state convention Saturday, winning the chance to face Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) in the general election.
The vote reflected the party’s desire to coalesce around a candidate with wide appeal and the best chance of unseating Warner, a popular former governor and one-term senator.
Gillespie is a favorite of donors and party insiders, yet he has also won over many tea-party-influenced conservatives who last year chose candidates who struggled to appeal to Virginia’s changing electorate.
Now the one-time Republican National Committee chairman turns his attention to an uphill battle against Warner, who already has a huge leg up in fundraising and name recognition. But in a year when Democrats are vulnerable and the GOP is hoping to retake the Senate, the race will draw attention and money from across the country.
“We have come into this hall through different doors, but we will leave this hall through one Republican door united in our principles to defeat Mark Warner and take back the Senate,” Gillespie said during his convention speech, bringing much of the crowd to its feet. “I will take our fight to Mark Warner, I will lead us to victory in the fall and we can turn our great country around again.”
Warner issued a brief congratulations Saturday to his newly minted opponent.
“I congratulate Ed Gillespie on winning the Republican nomination and look forward to discussing our records and our plans to give everyone in the Commonwealth a fair shot,” Warner said in a prepared statement. “That is the type of campaign Virginians want and deserve.”
Virginia Republicans — still smarting from the loss of all three statewide races on the ballot last year — came to Saturday’s convention with winning on their minds.
Gillespie’s leading rival, retired Air Force pilot Shak Hill, conceded before all the votes were counted, allowing the convention to nominate Gillespie by acclamation. Gillespie was leading by over 60 percent with about 90 percent of the votes counted, and he touted his rivals’ concession as a show of unity in an often-fractious party.
The outcome was a disappointment to some conservatives.
“I really think Gillespie is a Washington insider and lobbyist,” said Rosanne Reddin, a retired teacher from Williamsburg who wore a homemade T-shirt that read, “We need Shak on the Hill.” “Voting for him [Gillespie] is like voting for Warner. He’s the establishment.”
The video that played before Gillespie’s remarks portrayed him as a “proven leader,” flashing clips of his frequent appearances on “Meet the Press,” while showing a smiling Warner clasping hands with President Obama.
Going into the convention, Gillespie was the front-runner — ahead of Hill, congressional policy adviser Tony DeTora and businessman Chuck Moss.
But conventions are unpredictable, because only the most active and committed Republicans are willing to spend a beautiful June day inside a dark convention hall, making for a tense few hours. The 2,686 people who attended the convention represent about 1 percent of the 225,826 who voted in the GOP presidential primary in 2012.
Inside, vendors hawked everything from toilet tissue emblazoned with Obama’s face to photos of Confederate generals. Delegates were also treated to a short film about Ronald Reagan.
A convention-day pitch can make or break a candidate’s chances, sometimes more than traditional measures of strength such as fundraising. Last year, the most poorly funded candidate for lieutenant governor, E.W. Jackson, wowed the crowd with a stirring endorsement of far-right values.
Yet Jackson’s firebrand conservatism helped Democrats paint the entire Republican ticket last year, including gubernatorial nominee Ken Cuccinelli II and Sen. Mark D. Obenshain, the candidate for attorney general, as out of step with Virginia. Democrats went on to sweep all three statewide offices for the first time in 24 years.
This year, Jackson reprised his role as tea-party cheerleader, thrilling some in the crowd by endorsing Hill. In his speech, Hill criticized Gillespie’s background as a lobbyist.
“When you lobby for big bank bailouts, there is no separation between you and Mark Warner,” he said.
Democrats picked up on that line of attack after Hill and the other candidates closed ranks around Gillespie.
“Meet Ed Gillespie, a consummate Washington insider who is the Tea Party’s newly appointed candidate to be Virginia’s U.S. Senator,” Robert Dempsey, executive director of the Democratic Party of Virginia, said in an e-mail. “Ed Gillespie’s never been an elected official before but as a million-dollar lobbyist he’s had plenty of opportunities to influence D.C. decision-makers.”
Buoyed by the win, Gillespie this week will tour the state in a recreational vehicle emblazoned with his blue-and-green logo.
In his speech before Saturday’s vote, Gillespie tapped into Republican anger with Obama and linked Warner to the president and to Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who would lose his leadership role in the chamber if the GOP picks up enough seats in November.
“We see the damaging effects of Obama-Reid-Warner policies all around us,” he said. “We know that our policies based on free markets and free people and our constitutional principle of limited government would make things better for ourselves and our families and our fellow Americans.”
In addition to his opposition to the Affordable Care Act, Gillespie said he will “fight any effort to increase our taxes” and will stand with coal miners — a reference to new emissions standards rolled out by the Obama administration last week.
He also stressed his dedication to human life — “which begins at conception and ends at natural death” — and support for gun rights, two points the crowd rewarded with applause.
The New Jersey-born son of grocery-store owners, Gillespie started his political career on the lowest rung, parking cars in a Senate lot while attending Catholic University. In 1985, he was hired as press secretary to former Texas congressman Dick Armey, who — Gillespie notes in his 2006 book, “Winning Right” — played a key role in defeating then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s health-care proposal.
Gillespie later formed a lobbying firm, which he left eight years ago, sticking to strategic communications. Along the way, Karl Rove asked him to join the “Gang of Six,” advising Bush, which Gillespie calls a group of “party insiders” in his book. He helped write former House speaker Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America, ran the RNC and was a senior adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential bid.
Democrats pointed out on Saturday that Gillespie’s official convention biography left out any mention of his lobbying days.
Warner has a 4-to-1 fundraising advantage in a race in which outside groups could make the difference. Gillespie helped found Crossroads GPS with Rove but more recently has played down his role in the organization.
“What they or any other organization does is up to those organizations,” Gillespie said. “My view is I’ve got to run my campaign and I’ve got to raise the resources for me to get the message to the voters of Virginia on my own, and that’s what I’m preparing to do.”