The New York Times is reporting that Ed Gillespie, a former RNC chairman and George W. Bush adviser, has decided to run for the Senate. I e-mailed Gillespie last night, who promptly replied: “As I’ve made clear, I am talking to a lot of my fellow republicans in Virginia about running against Mark Warner. I’ve been encouraged by people all across our party and our commonwealth. The filing deadline is February 1st, so I will be announcing my intentions in the near future.” That sure sounds like he’s getting ready to take the plunge.
Could he win? Let’s begin by saying that if the 2014 race is a nationalized, wave election based on Obamacare, then every Democrat who voted for it (that includes Warner) is vulnerable. Period.
The task for any opponent of Warner is to make the case that while the ex-governor talks a moderate game, he has been a rubber stamp for the White House on everything from Obamacare to the stimulus to proposed tax hikes. In fact, for a very popular and capable governor, he’s been somewhat of a nonentity. When he has poked his head up, it was as part of a Gang of Six during the 2011 budget squabble, which effectively undermined a grand bargain between the speaker and the president and would have included a massive tax hike and huge defense cuts (Virginia has been affected by the less severe sequester cuts, so an even bigger cut would have been catastrophic for the state, not to mention irresponsible.) He has failed to persuade the administration to open up energy development in the state.
Gillespie’s task, if he runs, would be two-fold. First, he’d need to tie Warner to the president and argue that without Warner’s vote, we wouldn’t have had Obamacare. Second, he’d need to define himself as a Republican reformer, not a Beltway insider or fire-breathing right-winger.
Gillespie was chairman of one of the most effective campaigns I’ve witnessed up close, the 2009 double-digit gubernatorial win by outgoing Gov. Bob McDonnell. I interviewed Gillespie after the 18-point McDonnell win. His own analysis will be useful if he runs:
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.
Ironically, that campaign was run in part on pushing back against the newly elected president’s big-government policies. If Gillespie runs himself, he’ll again be running against Obama although Warner’s name will be on the ballot.
Gillespie is a longtime Virginia resident and well-known figure in the state party. If he does run, he won’t be easily dismissed. Former Democrat Artur Davis told me last night he’d support Gillespie if he runs. “Gillespie would bring both stature and seriousness to the race,” he said. A key advisor on the 2009 McDonnell campaign echoed that sentiment. “Ed can definitely win,” said the advisor (who correctly predicted that attorney general nominee Mark Obenshain would be the best candidate of the statewide GOP nominees in 2013.) Newly-announced congressional candidate and state delegate Barbara Comstock, who has worked over the years with Gillespie (most recently on the Romney campaign) can be expected to support him as well.
Warner and the Democrats would no longer be able to treat Virginia as a slam dunk. In other words, the Senate map would expand for the GOP, and Warner and the Democrats would need to raise and spend significant dollars to defend the seat.
Can an operative become a successful candidate? No one really knows, but Gillespie has spent years as a strategist and spokesman for his party and winning candidates. He is polished and calm in facing the MSM. He is an expert fundraiser. He was a late addition to the Mitt Romney presidential campaign and was, in the estimation of many Romney supporters and political watchers, about the most effective member of the team. (Too late, perhaps, he persuaded Romney to be a bit more forthcoming on bread-and-butter policy issues.) But he knows best of all that campaigns are hard and that there is a world of difference between being the guy in the firing line and being the strategist behind the lines.
Gillespie will have to satisfy increasingly polarized wings of the party (mainstream and right wing), sketch out a positive agenda and gird for battle. It is a measure of how vulnerable the Democratic Senate majority is that Gillespie (who certainly doesn’t need to do this at this stage in his political career) would seriously consider a Senate run. If he didn’t think he could win and the GOP could win the Senate, he wouldn’t be interested.
Soon enough, then, we will know whether he is emerging on the political stage in his own right and whether he has the skills to capitalize on a very shaky period for anyone with a “D” next to his name.