The last few years have been dismal for Virginia Republicans. Both of Virginia’s U.S. senators are Democrats. Its governor is a Democrat. The last GOP governor, Bob McDonnell, went from rising star and potential presidential aspirant to disgraced felon. The one bright spot, if a loss can be called “bright,” was the 2014 Senate race mounted by former George W. Bush adviser and Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie. He came within a whisker of beating popular former governor and incumbent Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.). Along the way, Gillespie offered meaty policy proposals and refused to whip the base into a frenzy on hot-button social issues. He demonstrated blue-collar appeal with ads about his immigrant family and recollections of his days as a car hop working his way through school. And not coincidentally, he ran the sort of positive campaign Republicans, even in defeat, could be proud of.
Now Gillespie offers a light at the end of the tunnel for the GOP. Like McDonnell (who engaged Gillespie as campaign chairman in 2009 and prevailed by nearly 20 points), he has managed to clear the field of his principal Republican rival in a race for governor. Mark Obenshain ran a credible race for attorney general in 2013, coming closer than any of the other Republican statewide contenders. Yesterday, however, Obenshain announced he would not run for governor. The move is reminiscent of then-Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who chose not to run for governor in 2009, allowing McDonnell to run unopposed in the primary.
Longtime Republican adviser and former McDonnell communications director Tucker Martin tells me, “[Obenshain] would have been a very strong candidate, and I’m sure this was not an easy decision for him. But he made the decision, and then announced it, with the grace and dignity that have defined his time in public office.”
While competition is usually healthy, in the Virginia GOP a contested primary usually means a race to the far right. As each contender tries to one-up the other on extreme positions, hopes of a general-election win recede. Gillespie seems to have avoided that problem, provided no other credible GOP contender emerges. As Martin remarks, “Now, with Mark’s decision, a door opens. Ed proved himself last year to be an incredibly effective and talented candidate.” He recalls, “He united our Party. He ran with joy and optimism. Even outspent nearly 3-1 he almost pulled off the upset of the cycle. He’s got everything one would need to be an incredibly strong statewide candidate again.” It is fair to say that Virginia Republicans will be somewhere between relieved and elated at the prospect of a Gillespie campaign.
Republicans should not underestimate how difficult a gubernatorial race will be. Virginia has seen an influx of younger, more diverse voters for whom diversity, excellent government services and improved transportation are as important, if not more important, than low taxes or social issues. To win, a Republican will need to convince those voters that conservative solutions will offer superior results. (Frankly, that is what all Republicans, whatever their office, should be offering.) For Gillespie, that will mean once again convincing voters that he is not the stereotypical Virginia Republican pol of yesteryear.
UPDATE: Just to be clear, Obenshain was not pressured to sit out the race, nor did Gillespie attempt to push him out. By all accounts from those close to both men, Obenshain made the call after much soul-searching, and indeed Gillespie was ready to support him if Obenshain had decided to run.