Former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie's decision to challenge Democratic Sen. Mark Warner in Virginia triggered a lot of head-scratching in political circles, because Gillespie is widely seen as a very savvy guy, and Warner is perceived to be in a very strong position. "Why is Ed doing this?" is a question heard frequently of late.
The truth is, Gillespie's bid is not as crazy as it seems. Sure, Warner is an incredibly formidable opponent, certainly as strong as a Democrat in Virginia could possibly be. He has built a reputation as governor, and in the Senate, as a moderate and pragmatist. He is one of the handful of Democrats whom Republicans can go to when trying to forge a compromise, and he is one of the few Democrats equally at ease working across the aisle with Republicans. Virginia is also a very expensive state for advertising; the price tag for a little-known challenger to catch up just on name recognition is formidable, and chipping away at substantial support much higher. But other factors are equally true.
Virginia is now a legitimate purple/swing state—no longer a red/Republican state, but nowhere near a clear-cut blue/Democratic state. Yes, Democrats last year swept all three statewide constitutional offices, and they already held both U.S. Senate seats, but two of those three constitutional wins last year have huge asterisks next to them. The Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, E.W. Jackson, was one of the weakest nominees for any statewide office, anywhere in the nation, in a very long time. He is living proof why Republicans—actually both parties—would be well advised to ditch their statewide nominating conventions, lest they continue nominating exotic and highly problematic candidates like E.W. Jackson (my wife is trying to get me to stop using the terms "wacko" and "whack job") who are popular within the hard-core party base but unelectable in a general election. Meanwhile, GOP gubernatorial nominee Ken Cuccinelli, while admittedly an extraordinarily weak candidate, still managed to get within 3 points of victory. Finally, Mark Obenshain, the Republican candidate for attorney general and the only non-politically disfigured GOP candidate on the statewide ballot, came within 165 votes of winning, of more than 2.2 million votes, 49.89 percent to 49.89 percent. That election's result is a better barometer of where Virginia is, or, more accurately, where it is in the context of very negative circumstances for Republicans.
Next you have to consider how politically fragile Democrats are at the moment. President Obama's current 40 percent approval rating in the Gallup Poll is 3 percentage points worse than George W. Bush's was at this point in his administration, when he was mired in controversy surrounding his decision to invade Iraq and the administration's response to Hurricane Katrina. Bush's GOP went on to lose six Senate and 31 House seats in that election. We won't even talk about Bill Clinton's 58 percent and Ronald Reagan's 63 percent approval ratings at this point, but it is worth noting that 40 percent is hardly an "average" approval rating for a president at this stage in his term. Presidential approval ratings aren't the only major factor in midterm elections, but none are more important.
Finally, Gillespie has little to lose and much to gain from this race. With the party having been decimated in the last election, there is hardly a long line of Republicans willing to take on Warner. So Gillespie, a long-time, big player on the national scene, but a relatively new face in Virginia politics, should not have much problem securing his party's Senate nomination. The state is competitive enough, and combined with the president's lack of approval and the controversial Affordable Care Act, that could potentially result in considerable liability weighing down the Democratic ticket. If the former RNC chairman gets, say, 47 percent of the vote, that would be quite respectable. Frankly, no one really expects Gillespie—or any other Virginia Republican, for that matter—to win, at this point anyway. However, having been willing to take on the politically strongest Democrat in the state in 2014, Gillespie would have strong standing to make a bid for the 2017 GOP gubernatorial nomination or the 2018 nod to take on the other Democratic senator, Tim Kaine, who is perceived as more vulnerable than Warner.
If Gillespie did not challenge Warner, his odds of his elbowing out more-established conservatives for the gubernatorial race three years from now would be considerably longer.
So, for Gillespie, this is a wishbone offense play. Take on Warner now, and who knows? Lightning could strike and he could win. But, if he doesn't, while Gillespie would probably not have right of first refusal for the next gubernatorial or senatorial nominations, he would have a far stronger case to make and base to run from than he otherwise would.
Sometimes things aren't as crazy as they seem.
This article appears in the January 21, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.