Virginia’s Next Senate Race Just Got Interesting

Beware, Mark Warner. Why Ed Gillespie, an architect of the Contract With America and longtime GOP strategist, will likely make a solid-blue Senate seat a nail-biter.

With little fanfare, Mark Warner’s Senate reelection bid this November just went from a shoo-in to a spirited contest. I’ll warn the Virginia Democrat now: Objects in the rearview mirror are closer than they appear—former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie is now the underdog, but he will make this race very competitive.

Full disclosure: I’ve known Ed for nearly 25 years—a vantage point that gives me insights as to why this election will be close down the stretch. He comes from a remarkably humble upbringing. A son of Irish immigrants, Gillespie grew up working in his parents’ grocery store. To help pay his way through school, he became a Senate parking attendant at age 17. It would be remarkable for him to move from the parking lot to the floor of the United States Senate to cast votes on behalf of my home state.

I first met Ed when we worked on Capitol Hill together—he was a senior adviser to then House Majority Leader Dick Armey, while I served as the legislative director to House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich. Even as young as he was back then, Gillespie earned the trust of the House Republican leadership and many in the conference for his keen intellect and remarkable communication skills. In 1994, Gillespie was the key architect of the Contract With America, a 10-point promise to the American people of what Republicans would achieve if given the chance to lead the House of Representatives. It swept the GOP into power for the first time in more than 40 years.

Sen. Warner and his supporters will try to distract voters by employing the usual scorched-earth campaign: Gillespie was a lobbyist, he is a Washington insider, and, oh my goodness, he served as a counselor to President George W. Bush. Given that Virginia just elected the consummate insider in Gov. Terry McAuliffe, I suspect Gillespie’s Beltway experience won’t hurt him. In fact, his experiences will serve as an asset.

For one, Ed was able to learn how the levers of power work on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Unlike many in the House and Senate today, Gillespie understands the art of compromise without betraying his core Republican principles. As counselor to George W. Bush, Ed advised on domestic and foreign policy as well as articulating the president’s message to the American people.

To be sure, Mark Warner will not be easy to unseat. He is a popular former governor and current occupant of the Senate seat that Gillespie seeks to win. University of Virginia political guru Larry Sabato has re-classified this race in his Crystal Ball from Safe Democratic to Likely Democratic. But this is where the intangibles in politics will work to Gillespie’s advantage.

Obamacare is deeply unpopular in Virginia and Gillespie will be sure to characterize Sen. Warner’s vote as the deciding factor in inflicting the law on millions of people. Warner parroted President Obama’s pledge that if you liked your doctor and your health insurance, Obamacare would have no effect on your choice. Before long, I suspect Virginia’s airwaves will be flooded with their senior senator uttering this promise, which turned out to be untrue.

For Sen. Warner’s professed vow to serve as an independent-minded Democrat, he voted lock-step with Obama to raise taxes and support the Affordable Care Act while voting to increase the national debt by $6.7 trillion. These three pocketbook issues have angered many across Virginia and I suspect that millions more will have their health coverage canceled prior to the November election.

Most importantly, Gillespie is exactly the type of Republican that Virginians have not nominated for office in the past several election cycles and the results have been revealing. For the first time since I was born in 1969, no Republican is presently serving as governor, lieutenant governor, or attorney general. Ed is pragmatic, nuanced, and upbeat in his demeanor—it will be impossible for Democrats to paint him as an angry, bomb-throwing member of the Tea Party. He also has crossover appeal to independents, Reagan Democrats, and communities of color.

With much of the national media is focused on imperiled Senate Democrats like North Carolina’s Kay Hagan, Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu, or Arkansas’ Mark Pryor, I suspect talk will turn soon to a newly competitive race in the Old Dominion. Mark Warner may have thought he could coast to victory this fall against a weak, poorly financed Republican opponent. That equation just changed. Hard work, strong campaigning, and yes, a little luck of the Irish, may propel Gillespie from the parking lot to the floor as a voting member of the United States Senate. Fasten your seat belts. This will be a barnburner.