Ed Gillespie, longtime GOP strategist, steps into a new role: Senate candidate in Virginia


Ed Gillespie, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, is hoping to unseat Virginia Sen. Mark Warner. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Ed Gillespie has made a name and fortune writing, packaging and peddling the party line. The walls of his new campaign headquarters in a semi-industrial Northern Virginia neighborhood near I-95 are lined with mementos of his glories as a political operative.

There is a poster advertising the 1994 “Contract with America,” which he helped write and which helped the GOP earn its first House majority in four decades; a photo with President George W. Bush, in the White House where Gillespie held the title of counselor; a framed 2004 profile in which this newspaper dubbed the Republican Party’s then-chairman “Ed the Quipper”; and photos from some of his 17 appearances on “Meet the Press.”

Now, for the first time, he has to make the case for Ed Gillespie.

“This is me, talking about what I believe, what I’m for, not advocating for someone else. When people don’t like that, it does feel a little more personal than it did in the past,” he said. “I try not to be my own adviser, to not be my own campaign manager or strategist in the process. It’s hard sometimes.”

Even harder: His very first race is one to unseat the most popular elected official in Virginia, Sen. Mark R. Warner (D), a former governor who started the year with more than $7 million in his campaign treasury.

Thus far, Gillespie’s has been a low-key, cautious campaign. This is not a year in which being a Washington insider is a credential to brag about with voters, particularly the grass-roots activists who are expected to dominate the Roanoke convention at which Virginia Republicans will pick their nominee on June 7.

And Democrats have already put up billboards dubbing him “Enron Ed,” a reference to his lucrative stint as a lobbyist for clients that included the notorious failed energy giant.

“I’m not offended by people’s skepticism,” Gillespie said. “I understand it, and I think they appreciate that. I’m not defensive about it at all, and the more we talk and the more they hear what my own views are, there’s a growing comfort level.”

Indeed, he is a heavy favorite to win the nomination, in no small part because the wipeout Republicans suffered in the 2013 election — losing all three statewide offices and control of the Virginia Senate — has put even many tea party stalwarts in a more pragmatic frame of mind.

Those defeats, on top of President Obama’s 2012 victory in Virginia, exposed serious GOP weaknesses against the Democrats’ modern, data-driven operation in this rapidly changing state.

His backers argue that, win or lose, Gillespie — who brings know-how, financial resources and a more inclusive message — might be just the person to put the Republicans on the road to rehabilitation. Gillespie’s list of endorsements is formidable, including names from across the spectrum of the deeply divided party.

“The Republican Party has a lot of work to do to come roaring back from what have been two very difficult cycles,” said John Whitbeck, a state party official who has close ties to the activist base. “Ed as a candidate gives us an opportunity to learn from our mistakes. That’s what we need to do as a party.”

Hoping to catch a wave

Gillespie insists he can beat Warner, despite running nearly 30 points behind in a Roanoke College poll in early March.

“People don’t know him,” Gillespie said of the man who has held statewide elective office in Virginia for nine of the past 12 years. “They know this ‘radical centrist,’ as he portrays himself. He is very consistent in his rhetoric, but it is very much at odds with his record.”

What Gillespie plans to drive home between now and November is the idea that the senator has been a soldier for the agenda of Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), including support for the new health-care law, Obama’s 2009 stimulus package and environmental measures that would hurt the coal industry.

Then again, Obama has won Virginia twice. And even many Republicans acknowledge that the odds are long against Gillespie unless the political currents build into an anti-Democratic tsunami nationally. “Ed has a surfboard. If the wave comes in, he will know how to get on and ride it,” said Thomas M. Davis III, a former Northern Virginia congressman who headed the House Republicans’ campaign committee from 1998 to 2002.

But Davis added, “It would have to be a pretty big wave to take Mark Warner out.”

Nor does it help Gillespie that Warner has deep ties to the Republican-leaning business community, going back to Warner’s days as a technology executive and investor who co-founded the cellular telephone company that became Nextel.

Gary Shapiro, head of the Arlington County-based Consumer Electronics Association, was one of Mitt Romney’s most influential backers from the high-tech world. But when Gillespie approached Shapiro, he told him: “I’m supporting Mark Warner. Nothing against you, but he’s one of us.”

“Honestly, it wasn’t a difficult decision. It was just an awkward one,” Shapiro said, noting that he had backed Warner in his first run for the Senate six years ago. “There are two good candidates, and one of them is more comfortable and familiar than the other.”

And just days after Gillespie’s January announcement that he was running, former senator John W. Warner — a Republican who defeated Mark Warner nearly two decades ago — announced that he was endorsing the Democrat.

A Mark Warner adviser called the move “our shot across the bow.”

“Senator Warner’s record of working across the aisle to solve problems has allowed him to maintain strong relationships with Republicans, business leaders and rural communities across the state,” said Trey Nix, Mark Warner’s campaign manager. “Virginians across the political spectrum are signing up to support Senator Warner.”

There is precedent for political operatives making the jump to elective office in Virginia. In addition to his business career, Mark Warner had been a Democratic fundraiser, chairman of the Virginia state party and manager of Douglas Wilder’s successful 1989 gubernatorial campaign.

Before becoming Virginia governor, Terry McAuliffe was best known as a former chairman of the national Democratic Party and as the hyper-enthusiastic buddy of Bill Clinton.

Both, however, ran and lost once before they were elected. The Democratic Warner failed to unseat the Republican one for Senate in 1996. McAuliffe fell short in his bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2009.

That recent history is why some in both parties speculate that with his long-shot Senate bid this year, Gillespie — who was Virginia GOP chairman at one point — may actually be laying the groundwork for a run for governor in 2017.

“My real plan is to win the United States Senate seat, plain and simple,” Gillespie said.

Democratic roots

Gillespie, 52, has been part of the Republican elite for so long that it is easy to assume he was born with a silver sound bite in his mouth. But the life story he tells as he tours the state begins far removed from network green rooms and high-dollar fundraisers — in Browns Mills, N.J., a town that has been down on its luck for as long as anyone can remember.

His grandfather brought his family over from Donegal, Ireland, by working as a miner and then as a janitor. Gillespie’s father owned a grocery store where more than a quarter of the customers paid with food stamps; Jack Gillespie insisted his six children treat those shoppers with the same respect they would give them if they were paying with $100 bills.

Apart from their mother’s successful campaign to become the first woman on their local school board, the family had little to do with politics. But on their dining-room wall hung a print that imagined John F. Kennedy walking through a field with Pope John XXIII, sowing seeds of peace.

“We were all Democrats,” said his older brother John, who is a lawyer. “Irish Catholics in New Jersey? . . . It was almost genetic.”

Gillespie went to Catholic University expecting to become a journalist. But a $5.50-an-hour job parking cars on the Senate lot led to an internship with Rep. Andy Ireland, a Democrat from Florida who switched parties in 1984. Gillespie did, too.

When Gillespie put in a bid to become Ireland’s press secretary, he got passed over, so he applied for a position on the staff of a quirky freshman congressman from Texas.

“We saw him as an able, serious, adult person who also happened to be fun to be around. Man, we grabbed him,” recalled Dick Armey, whom few at the time would have pegged as a future House majority leader.

Said Kevin Costello, a college friend who had worked parking cars with Gillespie: “He met his political kindred spirit when he went to work with Dick Armey. They wanted to stick it to the big shots a little.”

As Armey’s stock rose, so did Gillespie’s, and he became known as one of the most skillful on Capitol Hill at crafting a message.

“He understands policy, but he is able to express his views on policy in an easily understandable way,” said former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, who in the mid-1990s was chairman of the Republican National Committee and recruited Gillespie to be his communications director.

When Barbour returned to lobbying, he created a new public relations division in his firm for Gillespie to run. From there, Gillespie navigated a multilane highway of Washington power, weaving in and out of electoral politics, the White House and the private sector.

With Bush’s former top strategist Karl Rove, Gillespie helped create a network of ostensibly independent political organizations that includes American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, which raised and spent about $325 million in the 2012 election.

The insurgent tea party movement considers Crossroads and its ilk a threat — which is one reason Gillespie is working so hard to make the anti-establishment forces in the party more comfortable with the idea of him as their candidate.

Some aren’t buying it. “They’ve tried to sell him as the tea party guy, privately. They’ve tried to sell him as the four-star general of conservatism,” said Steven Waters, a grass-roots leader and organizer. “I totally don’t think he’s conservative. He’s a big-government Republican.”

Gillespie has three Republican opponents: Shak Hill, a retired combat pilot; businessman Chuck Moss; and Tony DeTora, a congressional policy adviser.

Hill has accused Gillespie of ducking debates and campaigning as though he already has the nomination. “He just doesn’t want to be mixing it up with us,” said Chris Shores, Hill’s campaign manager.

At the same time, Gillespie is also trying to expand the GOP’s reach. His campaign notes that he has met with Islamic leaders and African American pastors and has gone to Vietnamese Lunar New Year celebrations and meetings of Hispanic organizations. Gillespie said his next campaign video will come with English-, Spanish- and Korean-language versions.

“It’s a campaign that’s going everywhere,” Gillespie said. “When I got in this race, I thought I could win this race. As I travel Virginia and I talk to people and I listen to people and I see what’s going on, I increasingly feel like I’m going to win this race.”

That sounds like something a political spinmeister would say — and that a candidate would have to believe.

Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.
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