For most of 2013, there was little intrigue in next year's U.S. Senate race in Virginia. That changed this weekend when former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie floated himself as a potential challenger to Sen. Mark R. Warner (D).
"I’m going to take some time to talk with fellow Virginia Republicans about how we best win this pivotal Senate seat and, of course, with my own family, who come ahead of politics," Gillespie told The Washington Post.
When someone with the political profile of Gillespie -- he also serves as head of the Republican State Leadership Committee -- says something like that, the political world takes notice. But a broader look at the contours of the race suggests that the smart money is on Gillespie passing on a run. Here are the three biggest reasons why:
1. Warner is really, really popular. Running against Warner means running against Virginia's most popular statewide official. An August Quinnipiac poll showed him sporting a 61 percent job approval rating, with only 25 percent saying they disapproved of the job he's been doing. The former governor cruised to victory in 2008 and has done a good job of cutting a moderate image back home during his tenure in the Senate. In short, there's a reason why no big-name Republican candidates have stepped up yet to face the Democratic senator despite Virginia's purple hue. That reason is Warner.
Gillespie would start as a major underdog, despite the tools that would be at his disposal, such as good access to a fundraising network via his strong relations with GOP donors. Jumping into a race that would begin as such a steep climb befits an up-and-comer trying to build some good will in the party by stepping where no one else did, not a political veteran like Gillespie. And losing would be a bad first run for a candidate who has never made a bid for elected office -- especially if he wants to run for some other office in the future.
Sure, the 2014 climate could turn out to be very bad for Democrats because of problems with Obamacare, and that would provide Gillespie an opening. But even then, Warner wouldn't be as heavily exposed as his colleagues in red states like Louisiana, Arkansas or Alaska. Virginia voted for Obama twice. " It looks right now to the be the longest of long shots for any challenger," said George Mason University political scientist Mark Rozell on the odds of upsetting Warner.
2. The 2017 governor's race. There are benefits to playing the maybe-I-will-run game even if you don't end up running. "Often, what happens with strong challengers with Gillespie is their name gets floated of they float their name, and ultimately they decide not to run. And in doing so, they set themselves in the political mind for a run down the line for what is a more attainable seat," said Republican strategist John Ullyot, who was an adviser to John Warner, the former Republican senator from Virginia.
The 2017 governor's race has got to look more appealing to someone line like Gillespie than 2014 does. First, it is guaranteed to be an open race, given Virginia's single-term limit for governor. What's more, given how poorly Virginia Republicans did in statewide races this year, if state Sen. Mark Obenshain doesn't win a recount in the race for attorney general, Republicans will be without someone in a natural position to springboard to a gubernatorial run in 2017. That's good news for someone outside the realm of statewide politics -- someone like say, Gillespie.
3. The nominating convention. Virginia Republicans plan to nominate their Senate contender by convention in 2014, a process that has been none-too-kind too to establishment Republicans like Gillespie. The presence of the 2013 convention was the reason conservative Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II was the GOP nominee for governor this year and why Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, seen as a more moderate Republican, dropped his bid. It was at the convention that controversial minister E.W. Jackson won the nomination for lieutenant governor in surprising fashion. In 2008, Jim Gilmore, a former RNC chair and governor, barely won his party's nomination for U.S. Senate at the convention. Gillespie is a sharp political mind and is surely aware of the potential hazards of the convention. It's enough to make any establishment Republican think twice about running.