Republican Ed Gillespie barnstormed Virginia on Saturday in a sign of early financial strength in the 2017 governor’s race, winging across the commonwealth in a borrowed plane with a message of economic opportunity and an up-by-the-bootstraps biography.
Starting in Virginia’s wealthy economic engine outside Washington, where he picked up the endorsement of former governor George Allen, Gillespie hopscotched to Richmond, Hampton Roads and Roanoke before he was scheduled to end the day in the coal fields bordering Tennessee.
The fly-around — something more typically seen in the final days of a governor’s race, not 10 months out — will be followed by a four-day RV tour across the state.
“I believe the message that I have is going to resonate with all Virginians,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post during his flight from Chantilly to Richmond.
The splashy kickoff could help set Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman and counselor to President George W. Bush, apart from lesser-funded rivals. He will also use it to reintroduce himself to voters who, he conceded, may have only a vague memory of him as the guy who almost unseated Sen. Mark R. Warner (D) in 2014.
“I understand people are busy, they have hectic lives. And they’re dealing with a lot of these struggles I’ve talked about here today. I don’t expect them to remember that I ran for Senate in ’14 as well as I remember it,” he said, laughing.
Gillespie faces three Republicans in the GOP’s June 13 primary, including a Trump-style attention grabber who just last week stole the spotlight by raffling off an AR-15 rifle. And he must contend with a newly competitive and more aggressive Democratic field, after former congressman Tom Perriello decided 10 days ago to challenge Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam for their party’s nomination.
Some rivals scoffed at the notion that Gillespie, who has led the GOP and worked beside a president, can channel the populist zeitgeist.
“To truly get to know people, you need to spend time with them, not just pop in and out of the airport in a private jet like Flyover Ed,” said Republican rival Corey A. Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of Supervisors, who was planning to spend the day with supporters in Virginia Beach.
“And by the way,” said Stewart, who chaired Donald Trump’s Virginia campaign in Virginia until being ousted over an unauthorized protest outside the Republican National Committee, “I am driving there in my red pickup.”
On a radio show Friday, Perriello was equally dismissive.
“Here you have one of the biggest D.C. corporate lobbyists trying to come into Virginia and bring the most corrupt politics of this area into our state. Literally wrote the K Street strategy about how to sell out the American middle class to the highest bidder,” he said on WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi Show. “And now he wants to come in and try to be, like, a middle-of-the-road, aw-shucks guy in Virginia?”
Mark J. Rozell, dean of George Mason University’s Schar School of policy and government, said he did not think the kickoff would impress voters.
“He’s probably wasting jet fuel,” Rozell said. “I understand him wanting to get ahead of the pack and show off his ability to expend resources early in the campaign. . . . But it’s six days before the presidential inauguration, and the public is not paying attention to the race for governor right now. And hardcore Republican activists, especially, have their gaze on Washington right now.”
At his appearances, Gillespie spoke in broad strokes about boosting Virginia’s “anemic” economic growth with limited government, lower taxes and more affordable college. He took a few swipes at term-limited Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and his chosen successor, Northam, singling out a deal that offered state economic-development money to what turned out to have been a phony Chinese company.
Northam punched back. “We’ll put the record of the current administration creating jobs up against Ed Gillespie’s record as a D.C. lobbyist for Enron from now until November,” said Northam’s spokesman, David Turner. Gillespie’s former lobbying firm represented the energy giant Enron, which collapsed in October 2001; his firm cut ties with Enron two months later.
Gillespie mentioned but did not dwell on hot-button issues, noting that he supports “the protection of innocent life” and “the right to keep and bear arms.” He took issue with the “McAuliffe-Northam approach” to automatically restoring voting rights to convicted felons once they have completed their sentences. Gillespie said rights restoration should be handled on a case-by-case basis.
He emphasized his upbringing as the grandson of an Irish immigrant who worked as a janitor in Philadelphia. His parents owned a grocery store, where he worked as a child. It was through a job parking cars for Senate staffers that he got his first job in politics.
Gillespie says that biography helps him relate to the disaffected voters who flocked to Trump.
Gillespie drew dozens of supporters and elected officials at his events in Northern Virginia and Richmond, both held in office space used for his campaign.
“I think that he is a rational, reasonable political leader who I think will be good for the commonwealth, particularly from a fiscal standpoint,” said David Brunori, 54, a professor of public policy at George Washington University, who attended an event in Chantilly.
Richard Roberts, a Henrico County software consultant sporting a Trump pin, said he remained undecided — in part because of Gillespie’s tepid support for the president-elect.
“Support for the president of the United States is going to matter. I’m not saying it’s the end-all and be-all, but it’s going to be a factor,” Roberts said.
Gillespie’s tour came days after the Republican Governors Association wrote a $5 million check — the largest single political donation in Virginia history — with the goal of putting a Republican in the governor’s mansion.
“We see the Virginia governor’s race as a race that’s very vulnerable for party flip,” RGA spokesman Jon Thompson said.
The structure of the RGA donation, to a Republican political action committee and not a specific candidate, would allow the group to take the money back if that outlook changes. “We could end up spending none of it,” Thompson said.
McAuliffe, Virginia’s popular Democratic governor, is banned by the state’s constitution from serving back-to-back terms.
A spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association suggested that the donation was meant to grab attention but not a firm bet on the race, given the RGA’s ability to take the money back.
“This is nothing more than a press release about paper shuffling between bank accounts,” said DGA spokesman Jared Leopold.
While the RGA’s $5 million broke the record for the largest single contribution, the RGA and other donors have cumulatively made bigger contributions in particular races. Over the course of the 2013 governor’s contest, for instance, the RGA gave $8 million to then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II.
The PAC will remain neutral in the Republican primary, Thompson said. But before both parties pick their nominees on June 13, Thompson said, the PAC might spend some of that money on ads against one or both Democrats.