Two late polls showing the gap in what was nearly a 30-point race shrinking to single digits has lifted Republicans’ spirits in Virginia. In a GOP robo poll by Vox Populi, Sen. Mark Warner (D) leads GOP nominee Ed Gillespie by four points, but the percentage of undecideds (11) is suspiciously high. However, according to Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center poll: “While Warner’s share of the vote remains similar to the Wason Center’s October 7 survey, in which he had 51%, Gillespie’s share has grown from 39% to 44%. The numbers of both undecided voters and supporters of Libertarian Robert Sarvis have shrunk since the earlier poll, accounting for Gillespie’s increased support.”
It is not hard to figure out why the face has tightened. Gillespie is an experienced adviser and political operative, but he also turned out to be a very solid candidate. He has not had any noteworthy gaffes. He ran one of the most substantive campaigns out there, presenting an Obamacare alternative as well as proposals on energy and job creation. Defying the GOP stereotype, Gillespie stressed his family’s immigrant roots and his own experience working his way through college parking cars in the Senate parking lot. He has been accessible and cheery throughout.
By contrast, Warner has been burdened with his record of supporting the president 97 percent of the time — a claim rated “true” by PolitiFact. He has been on the defensive over his call to the son of a key state Senate Democrat with whom Democrats were pleading not to resign in which Warner “brainstormed” about job opportunities for the lawmaker’s daughter. But, as he has been in the Senate, Warner has been most invisible in the race, relying on his name recognition and his good reputation from his previous stint as governor.
The more the race is nationalized, becoming a referendum on Obama’s policies, the better Gillespie has done. Although Virginia voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, the president’s approval rating there is at just 42.5 percent, compared with 52.5 percent disapproval.
As with most Virginia Republicans, Gillespie’s hopes ride on a large turnout by conservatives outside of Northern Virginia, keeping the margin for Warner down in Fairfax County and winning in the outer suburbs of Washington. And indeed he and his campaign have been much more active in Northern Virginia than was 2013 GOP gubernatorial nominee Ken Cuccinelli, who lost big in Fairfax (58 to 36 percent), especially among women and suburban voters who found his social policies too extreme and demeanor excessively grating. Cuccinelli outperformed expectations in the rest of the state but lost overwhelmingly in Northern Virginia, losing the state by only 2.5 points. Gillespie in essence must run better than Cuccinelli in Northern Virginia and like him everywhere else.
Tucker Martin, a longtime Republican operative and former communications director for Bob McDonnell’s 2009 gubernatorial campaign, which prevailed by 17.5 points, says: “This won’t be a case of lack of preparation leaving a campaign unable to benefit from a changing landscape. The Gillespie campaign’s ‘theory of the case’ has always been that this thing would break late and fast.” He also makes the case that “if last year’s trend holds, polls right now are actually only still catching up to, not perfectly capturing, momentum shifting to the Republican. Cuccinelli outperformed public polls on Election Day. If that same dynamic is happening again, which activity on the ground and anecdotal evidence would appear to argue it is, then these numbers look even better for Ed.”
Helping Gillespie may be Republican Barbara Comstock, the favorite to win the 10th congressional district, replacing Frank Wolf, in the northern suburbs. In a sort of reverse coattails effect, enthusiastic Republicans turning out for Comstock (who leads by double digits in some polling) may boost Gillespie. (Comstock’s Democratic opponent, John Foust, has run a miserable race and insulted Comstock in a way perceived by many as sexist, declaring, “I don’t think she’s even had a real job.”)
On election night, downstate returns traditionally come in early, and Republicans then watch their lead vanish as Northern Virginia returns come in. The best-case scenario for Gillespie: He racks up a big lead early, Comstock voters turn out in force and he keeps losses down in Northern Virginia. Is it possible? In a wave election, a lot of challengers get swept in, especially ones who have run good races. The question for Gillespie remains: How big a wave will there be?