Ed Gillespie’s Senate Bid Isn’t As Crazy As It Seems

Former RNC Chair Ed Gillespie has little to lose and much to gain from running against Mark Warner in Virginia’s Senate race.

US President George W. Bush introduces Ed Gillespie, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, as new White House counselor, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, 13 June 2007. Gillespie will replace Dan Bartlett, who currently holds the position and announced his resignation 01 June
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Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
Jan. 20, 2014, 1:59 p.m.

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.

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