LYNCHBURG, Va. — Ed Gillespie grew up in a traditional Irish Catholic family, where faith was central to his life but not something he was comfortable wearing on his sleeve.
He’s over that now.
The Republican candidate for governor of Virginia stood before 15,000 Liberty University students Monday to share how his faith has helped him understand that painful disappointments — from his failure to gain admission to his top choice for college to his squeaker loss to U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D) in 2014 — were part of God’s plan and ultimately for the good.
“The truth is, I was not raised to talk about my personal relationship with our savior, Jesus Christ,” Gillespie said at a convocation at the school. “Happily, over time that’s become more comfortable to me. Today I’m glad to be able to share with you how that relationship sustains me, and how my faith helps me through difficult times — in hopes that it might somehow be helpful to you.”
While the soul-baring was new to Gillespie, the pilgrimage to Liberty has become routine for politicians courting evangelical voters.
The tiny Baptist college that the Rev. Jerry Falwell founded in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in 1971 has ballooned into the world’s largest Christian university, now led by the late TV preacher’s son. Along the way, Liberty has become an essential campaign stop for conservative office-seekers. Its thrice-weekly convocations, mandatory gatherings for students, guarantee a polite and receptive crowd.
The last presidential cycle alone drew four Republican candidates: now-President Trump, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Ben Carson and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), with Cruz choosing the campus to formally announce his candidacy. Sen. Bernie Sanders (V-I), who was then seeking the Democratic nomination, and Libertarian Gary Johnson also addressed students.
Now Virginia’s aspiring governors are beating a similar path to Liberty; Gillespie was the first 2017 statewide candidate to speak at a convocation, but others are coming.
Denver Riggleman, one of his rivals for the GOP nomination, also was at Liberty Monday, giving an interview to the student newspaper, the Champion; making his own plans to speak at a convocation; and holding a meet-and-greet with students at a restaurant nearby.
As a distillery owner, Riggleman is not the most obvious favorite for a dry campus. But Trump, who has owned casinos and been married three times, managed to win robust support from Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr.
Riggleman bills himself more as a libertarian than a religious conservative but said that his message has appeal at Liberty. He said several students he spoke with agreed with his notion that marijuana legalization is a matter that should be left up to the states.
“I’m a live-and-let-live person,” Riggleman said. “What I’ve noticed about Liberty students is they’re so liberty-minded in freedoms across the spectrum. They’re very open-minded, almost in a libertarian-minded way.”
In response to Gillespie’s appearance, the other two Republicans running for governor touted their own Liberty ties. State Sen. Frank W. Wagner (R-Virginia Beach) said he had worshipped just the day before at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, where the Rev. Jonathan Falwell, another son of Liberty’s founder, is pastor.
Corey A. Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors and former chairman of Trump’s Virginia campaign, said that he attended a campus campaign event on Trump’s behalf in the fall and that he, too, planned to speak at a convocation.
“It’s a training ground for future conservative leaders, not just in Virginia, but around the country,” Stewart said.
State Sen. Bryce E. Reeves (R-Spotsylvania), who is running for lieutenant governor, and John Adams, a former federal prosecutor who is running for attorney general, are scheduled to appear at a convocation March 27.
Gillespie had addressed Liberty students before; he and Warner were convocation speakers in 2014. But Gillespie’s speech then was more policy-oriented and less personal.
This time, Gillespie spoke only for about five minutes, ahead of the main convocation speaker: John Borek, a former Liberty president.
Gillepsie, a former Republican National Committee chairman and onetime counselor to President George W. Bush, described a string of personal defeats and the silver linings that only later became apparent.
“My parents never went to college, but they insisted that I do,” he said. “So when I was a senior in high school, I’d set my sights — and my heart — on a very elite liberal arts college in New England. In retrospect, given my grades and SAT scores, it was beyond my reach. But I’d convinced myself I could get in. I didn’t, and I was devastated.”
Gillespie did not name the college, but campaign spokesman Matt Moran later said it was Williams College.
Gillespie wound up attending Catholic University — which led him to his wife of 30 years and a career in politics. It provided a populist talking point to boot.
“I didn’t belong at an elitist, secular college in Massachusetts,” he said. “I belonged at a blue-collar, religious college in Washington, D.C.”
He touched only broadly on his goals as governor, saying he knows that “I can make a difference” to “laid-off coal miners, heroin addicts in recovery, parents of children trapped in failing schools, young people like you struggling with student loan debt.” He also noted that he would stand for “the protection of innocent human life and religious liberty.”
Democrats saw an opening there.
“During his address, Gillespie proved that he’s dedicated to limiting access to women’s health care and imposing anti-LGBT measures upon Virginians in the name of ‘religious liberty,’ ” state party spokeswoman Emily Bolton said.
Students gave Gillespie a polite response, although several said afterward that they had not yet tuned into the governor’s race.
Falwell himself appeared to be in that camp. He introduced Gillespie but said he could not stay to hear his remarks because he had to give a campus tour to an unnamed special guest.
As Falwell began, he started to describe Gillespie as a candidate for governor. Then he paused and looked over his shoulder at him.
“I don’t know if he’s announced yet,” Falwell said.
Gillespie, who threw his hat into the ring in October 2015, gave him a nod.
“He has,” Falwell said. “He’s running for governor of Virginia.”