What Is Ed Gillespie’s Backup Plan?

Republicans insist he can win Tuesday. But if he doesn’t, it doesn’t have to be his last dance.

WASHINGTON - SEPTEMBER 26: White House Counselor Ed Gillespie briefs reporters at the White House September 26, 2008 in Washington, DC. President George W. Bush made a statement earlier urging the Congress to pass the administration?s $700 billion bailout plan to save the nation from financial crisis.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
National Journal
Ben Pershing
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Ben Pershing
Oct. 29, 2014, 3:35 p.m.

KIL­MAR­NOCK, Va.—In the 10 months since he launched his cam­paign for U.S. Sen­ate, Ed Gillespie has not made many no­tice­able mis­takes. He united the frac­tious Vir­gin­ia GOP be­hind him, raised de­cent money, worked every corner of the state, and craf­ted a co­her­ent mes­sage in an in­cess­ant ef­fort to erode the stand­ing of in­cum­bent Mark Warner.

And after all that, he’s los­ing any­way.

The size of Warner’s edge is de­bat­able. It could be that it’s “a single-di­git race, and we are clos­ing every day,” as Gillespie claimed Tues­day at a lunch­eon in Tap­pa­han­nock. Or it could be that the polls are right: The last five non­par­tis­an, pub­licly re­leased sur­veys have put the Demo­crat’s lead between 10 and 12 points. Either way, Gillespie is widely re­garded as the un­der­dog in a race that nev­er gradu­ated to the top tier of na­tion­al con­tests.

Gillespie is, by all ac­counts, a smart guy, the con­sum­mate polit­ic­al pro. So why did he run? What’s his en­dgame? And if the polls are right, what’s next for the Re­pub­lic­an after his Tues­day night con­ces­sion speech?

The simplest ex­plan­a­tion is of­ten the best one, and Gillespie him­self and those close to him say he ran be­cause he thought he could win—at the very least, be­cause he thought it was worth a try.

“Ed Gillespie got in­to this race be­cause he be­lieved 2014 would be a good year. The en­vir­on­ment is far bet­ter than he or just about any oth­er Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ate could have dreamt of,” said Pete Snyder, who ran for lieu­ten­ant gov­ernor in 2013 and ran the co­ordin­ated cam­paign in Vir­gin­ia in 2012.

Gillespie was em­phat­ic in an in­ter­view Tues­day af­ter­noon in Kil­mar­nock that his fo­cus is locked on the Sen­ate. “This to me is the right time and the right po­s­i­tion,” Gillespie said. “I think I could be ef­fect­ive on Day One. The only oth­er race I would want to run would be if I de­cided to run for reelec­tion to this job after win­ning a week from today.”

Sim­il­arly, he had no in­terest in en­ter­tain­ing a hy­po­thet­ic­al about what he will do if he falls short Nov. 4—and wheth­er he might be eye­ing a race for gov­ernor in 2017 or an­oth­er Sen­ate bid in 2018.

But los­ing has been a first step on the path to vic­tory in re­cent Vir­gin­ia races, par­tic­u­larly for first-time can­did­ates like Gillespie: Mark Warner lost a Sen­ate race to John Warner in 1996, be­fore re­bound­ing to win the gov­ernor­ship in 2001. Terry McAul­iffe was trounced in the 2009 Demo­crat­ic primary for gov­ernor, then tri­umphed four years later. Both men learned les­sons from those ini­tial con­tests, build­ing up statewide con­tacts and boost­ing their name ID.

Win or lose, Gillespie is well placed to fol­low suit.

He has gained in­valu­able ex­per­i­ence this year. He’s earned no­tice from Vir­gin­ia Re­pub­lic­ans for his will­ing­ness to travel to every corner of the state and en­gage with the grass­roots, rather than sit­ting in his North­ern Vir­gin­ia headquar­ters and count­ing on ads to make his case.

He’s also learned to be the man in front of the cur­tain, rather than be­hind it.

“I like be­ing a can­did­ate,” Gillespie said. “I get en­er­gized by the cam­paign trail. … When you’re work­ing for a can­did­ate or in a cam­paign and you go in­to a room­ful of people, you can kind of sidle up to the side and get a cup of cof­fee and hope the can­did­ate doesn’t make a mis­take. Now, any­time you’re in a room you’ve got to be on.”

Though they con­trol the Gen­er­al As­sembly and a ma­jor­ity of the con­gres­sion­al del­eg­a­tion—with help from re­dis­trict­ing on both fronts—Vir­gin­ia Re­pub­lic­ans are in an elect­or­al slump. They failed in all three statewide races last year, and have now lost three of the last four con­tests for gov­ernor and three con­sec­ut­ive Sen­ate races. Pres­id­ent Obama won the state in 2008, the first Demo­crat to do so in four dec­ades, and again in 2012.

With no statewide elec­ted of­fi­cials, the Vir­gin­ia GOP suf­fers from a lead­er­ship va­cu­um at the top and fierce di­vi­sions throughout its ranks, between cent­rists and con­ser­vat­ives, and between the party es­tab­lish­ment and the grass­roots. Those di­vides helped fuel eco­nom­ics pro­fess­or Dav­id Brat’s stun­ning primary up­set of then-House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor in June.

Giv­en that en­vir­on­ment, Gillespie’s cam­paign has been not­ably uni­fy­ing. While 2012 Sen­ate nom­in­ee George Al­len en­dured snip­ing from con­ser­vat­ives, and 2013 gubernat­ori­al nom­in­ee Ken Cuc­cinelli got it from mod­er­ates, Gillespie has made peace across the spec­trum.

“I think that Ed has been a very dis­cip­lined can­did­ate and he has also shown a lot of people that he’s a very hard work­er. … I think some people have been pleas­antly sur­prised by that,” said Susan Stimpson, a former Stafford County Board of Su­per­visors chair who ran for lieu­ten­ant gov­ernor last year. “I think he’s work­ing very hard on his re­la­tion­ships with people. … I have seen him work to reach out to grass­roots lead­ers.”

When Gillespie got in the race, Stimpson said, “I think that many thought it would be quite prob­able this was just to lay the ground­work for something in 2017.”

Yet Gillespie’s path to vic­tory in an­oth­er race would be crowded.

State Sen. Mark Oben­shain earned high marks with­in the party for the qual­ity of his 2013 at­tor­ney gen­er­al bid, and for how he con­duc­ted him­self dur­ing the re­count that handed the job to foe Mark Her­ring. Oben­shain out­per­formed the rest of the GOP tick­et in a tough year, and is ex­pec­ted by many to run for gov­ernor in 2017.

It’s not clear wheth­er Gillespie would be will­ing to run against Oben­shain, as they have a close re­la­tion­ship. The Re­pub­lic­an State Lead­er­ship Com­mit­tee, led at the time by Gillespie, pumped mil­lions of dol­lars in­to Oben­shain’s at­tor­ney gen­er­al ef­fort. Oben­shain then be­came an early back­er of Gillespie’s Sen­ate bid, and mul­tiple staffers—in­clud­ing cam­paign man­ager Chris Leav­itt—moved from Oben­shain’s cam­paign payroll dir­ectly to Gillespie’s.

Bey­ond Oben­shain, Snyder could run for gov­ernor or make an­oth­er bid for lieu­ten­ant gov­ernor, after los­ing out on last year’s GOP nom­in­a­tion to con­tro­ver­sial min­is­ter E.W. Jack­son. Oth­er pos­sible statewide can­did­ates—for gov­ernor or to chal­lenge Demo­crat­ic Sen. Tim Kaine in 2018—in­clude GOP Reps. Randy For­bes and Robert Wittman.

Part of Gillespie’s ap­peal to Vir­gin­ia Re­pub­lic­ans as a can­did­ate is his abil­ity to raise cash. As the former head of the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee who helped cre­ate Amer­ic­an Cross­roads, Gillespie has ties to donors across the coun­try.

Through Oct. 15, Gillespie had raised $6.8 mil­lion. (Through the same peri­od in 2012, George Al­len—a former sen­at­or and gov­ernor who star­ted his cam­paign much earli­er in the cycle—had raised $12.5 mil­lion.)

But giv­en the num­ber of oth­er close races to which GOP donors have been pushed to give, Gillespie has done well, said Re­pub­lic­an con­sult­ant Dan Al­len.

“I think he’s raised good money,” Al­len said. “If you com­pare him to some of the oth­er races that haven’t been tar­geted na­tion­ally, I think he’s done very well.”

Gillespie has largely been on his own. Out­side groups and the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee have not made the in­vest­ments in Vir­gin­ia they have in the oth­er states seen as cru­cial to de­term­in­ing con­trol of the Sen­ate. Gillespie al­lies formed a su­per PAC to help him, the We Can Do Bet­ter PAC, but it has spent only about $120,000 on his be­half.

Demo­crats, for their part, scoff at the no­tion that this is a genu­inely close race be­ing mis­judged by all the sur­vey data.

“Our polling is in line with what pub­lic polls have shown,” said a Warner cam­paign aide. “Ed Gillespie’s line is what los­ing cam­paigns say when they’re in the last week of the elec­tion.”

Re­pub­lic­an op­er­at­ives in the state firmly be­lieve the race is more com­pet­it­ive than na­tion­al polls and pro­gnost­ic­at­ors see it, be­cause they ex­pect turnout among Demo­crats to be ex­cep­tion­ally low. Part of Gillespie’s job now is mak­ing that case to fel­low Re­pub­lic­ans, like Wil­li­am C. Smith, the own­er of a sport­ing goods store in Kil­mar­nock.

“We need a big win” on Elec­tion Day, Smith told Gillespie Tues­day.

“I feel it com­ing,” Gillespie as­sured him.

“I also felt it com­ing last elec­tion,” Smith said. “It didn’t hap­pen.”

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