Ed Gillespie made his official entrance into Virginia's Senate race Thursday with a well-produced video that mainly served up standard Republican campaign fare: introducing a good-looking family, telling an up-by-the-bootstraps personal story, and slamming an opponent for casting "the deciding vote" on Obamacare and voting for new taxes. But one aspect of the video is unusual for GOP candidates in recent years: The spot features prominent photos of the candidate with George W. Bush. Republicans have shied away from touting a relationship with the former president in campaigns since Bush left office in 2008.
The former Republican National Committee chairman, launching a challenge to popular Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, notes early in the video that he helped pay for college with a job as a U.S. Senate parking lot attendant. "Over the years, with lots of people's help and advice, I rose from that parking lot to the West Wing, serving as counsel for the president of the United States," says Gillespie, as two photos of him with Bush flash across the screen.
Gillespie isn't the first candidate to invoke the president in a positive way in a campaign ad: Virginia's other senator, Tim Kaine—who previously chaired the Democratic National Committee did so last cycle. In an ad that aired in September 2012, he mentioned working with the Bush administration as a picture of the two together appeared onscreen, and declared to the camera that "as your senator, I'll partner with whoever's president of the United States to do what's right for Virginia."
But this circumstance is different than a Democrat invoking the former president to show he'll reach across the aisle in the Senate. So why would this GOP candidate be playing up his relationship with Bush in his introduction to voters?
First, when it comes to former presidents, distance makes the heart grow fonder—and Bush is no exception. The 43rd president is not nearly as unpopular now as he was when he left office: By last year, his numbers had rebounded to near the 50 percent mark.
Second, it would be extremely difficult for Gillespie to tell his life story without mentioning his work for the president. Serving as a senior adviser in the West Wing is a highlight of his career, not something he could potentially downplay if he wanted to.
And third, the Bush association is likely less damaging to his prospects than another aspect to his career (which he did not mention in the video): lobbying. Democrats have already made it clear they intend to pound Gillespie for his work as a lobbyist. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee routinely refers to Gillespie as "lobbyist" or "D.C. lobbyist"—and their statement on Gillespie's entrance into the race Thursday mentions his work for the Bush administration once, but repeatedly slams his lobbying background and characterizes him as a "career lobbyist with a partisan history of slash-and-burn politics."
Still, despite those factors, don't count on seeing Bush on the campaign trail anytime soon in purple Virginia.
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