My previously scheduled phone interview with Gillespie happened to take place just a couple of hours after the verdict that rocked the Commonwealth. Gillespie was chairman of now convicted Bob McDonnell‘s hugely successful 2009 campaign and has known the McDonnells for decades. He said somberly, “The McDonnell family has been in my prayers. And they remain in my prayers.” That was the last negative sentiment during the wide-ranging call.
Gillespie, who spent years as a campaign and later presidential adviser, is almost giddy about his newfound career as a candidate. “I love it!” he said of the experience. “I just enjoy listening to people and sharing my ideas and solutions. I just spent a couple hours learning about proton therapy [at Hampton University].” For a person who until now never imagined himself as a candidate, Gillespie is plainly enjoying himself. “How many people get to say they are the Republican Senate candidate from Virginia? The days are long, but I learn so much.”
He is running against the incumbent senator and the state’s former governor, Sen. Mark Warner (D), who seems to be betting he can lay low and coast to a win on his past reputation and name recognition. Gillespie isn’t fazed. Having just passed Labor Day (the traditional start of the home stretch), he says that for most voters the race only now “is coming into focus.” Gillespie waxes enthusiastically about “real volunteer enthusiasm.” He thinks he is tapping into the sentiment held by a large majority of voters that the country is on the wrong track.
He ran, he says, because he is deeply worried about the country and senses the economic anxiety felt by so many people. “There is a lot of economic insecurity in the country today. People are feeling the squeeze,” he says. Not surprisingly, he says, “Obamacare is a major contributor to that squeeze. People are paying more for healthcare. Maybe they are only working 28 hours [to avoid triggering the employer mandate]. Maybe they are not getting a job because small businesses aren’t hiring.” That nexus of economic anxiety, stagnant wages, historically high unemployment and underemployment, rising health-care costs and student debt, according to Gillespie, means less take-home pay. (That is a formulation which may prove powerful to the GOP in 2016, if someone is smart enough to grab hold of it.)
But it’s not just the economy. “Foreign policy is a growing concern,” he says. “Sen. John McCain was campaigning with me yesterday and we spent a long time talking about it.” He quickly segues to his opponent: “Mark Warner voted for sequestration. We are seeing the results.” Ticking off a list of military installations in Virginia affected by the defense cuts, Gillespie argues, “People are feeling the effect of an arbitrary budget that is also hurting our national security.”
Gillespie is the quintessential happy warrior, even when talking about the sorry state of the economy and dysfunctional politics. “I feel pretty much everywhere I go Americans are more pessimistic, and I try to fight that,” he says. “This is not a matter of fate. It’s a result of bad policies,” he contends. “We can do better than this!” He tells me, “We have a great deal of involvement from younger volunteers and voters. This cost shifting [of health-care expenses from older to younger Americans], the debt, the long-term viability of these [entitlement] programs — it is a real concern.”
Even when talking about Warner, Gillespie talks without anger. With a “more in sadness than in anger” tone, he says, “He’s not the senator he said he’d be. He’s not voted the way he said he would.” He notes that we just passed the five-year mark of Warner’s promise that he’d never vote for a health-care bill that wouldn’t let you keep your doctor. “Now he wants to keep it, and I want to replace it,” he says matter-of-factly. His favorite statistic is Mark Warner’s support for the White House 97 percent of the time. His message, he says, is simply: “Elected officials should be held accountable.”
Gillespie may benefit from a depressed Democratic electorate and engaged Republicans. If it truly is nationalized race in which voters get to vote thumbs down on the incumbent party one last time, Gillespie may ride a wave to victory. He has cornered Warner into engaging in three more debates, which he will need those to get voters to focus on Warner’s real record and not his past glory as governor.
If Democrats start spending big in Virginia, you’ll know Gillespie is making progress. If nothing else, he has shown that you really can have a good time running for office. “The biggest pleasant surprise is how much I enjoy this,” he says. And the biggest surprise for a lot of political insiders and voters alike is how good Gillespie is as a candidate. If he keeps it up, he may stage what would arguably be the biggest upset of the cycle.