Ed Gillespie’s run for the U.S. Senate must first go through Roanoke at June’s State GOP Convention, where victory will only be possible with significant support from Tea Party-style Republican activists. Here’s how he plans to gain that support. [UPDATED with additional source material]
“I was Tea Party before there was a Tea Party,” Republican candidate for U.S. Senate tells The Bull Elephant, hearkening back to his work with Dick Armey in helping to draft the Contract with America—widely regarded as the blueprint for the GOP regaining a majority in the U.S House of Representatives in 1994, after four decades in the minority. Armey
now runs founded FreedomWorks, putting national organizational muscle behind Tea Party causes around the country.[UPDATE: Thanks for the correction from the comments, MidwestConservative.]
“The Contract with America put forward a lot of the same principles in 1994 that are animating the Tea Party and liberty movements today,” Gillespie says, emphasizing that he’s not new to the kinds of views that resonate with Virginia Republican activists today. Indeed, the evidence suggests he’s been singing from the same song book for quite some time. See, for example, this CNBC interview from 2010:
I don’t have reservations about the Tea Party. I know I’m perceived as an establishment Republican… [But] I worked for [Freedom Works founder] Dick Armey for ten years, and I agree with them on the issues, and I’m glad they’re energizing the political process…. I think they are going to inject some steel into some spines in Washington, D.C., and that’s a good thing… We would not be north of 60 seat-gain in the House of Representatives were it not for the energy and participation of Tea Party voters.
This is important, because in a Convention setting in Virginia, so-called Tea Party views dominate among attendees, even if most have not ever joined a Tea Party group. According to one recent study on the 2013 Virginia Republican Convention, fully 73% of Convention delegates either “support” or “strongly support” the Tea Party movement.
But it’s clear that Gillespie isn’t exactly facing a stampede of Tea Party support just yet. Much of the current cautiousness on display by more hardline conservative activists stems from suspicion about Gillespie’s career after the Contract with America days. A perfect example of this suspicion can be found here, by my friend James Atticus Bowden.
Democrats were quick to sense this potential difficulty for Gillespie, and pounced immediately. The New York Times crowed that Gillespie’s run was emblematic of a division within the Party, and “underlines the intent of more mainstream Virginia Republicans to retake control of the party after a Tea Party-backed candidate lost the governorship.”
The DSCC, for their part, wasted no time in releasing a hit piece arguing that “Ed Gillespie is out of step with Tea Party Republicans.” You read that correctly—Democrats are gleefully making the argument that Ed Gillespie has a Tea Party problem.
But Gillespie himself is having none of it. In an interview earlier this week with conservative talk show host Janine Turner, Gillespie made clear that Democrats wouldn’t be making that line of argument unless they feared having to run against him. “They don’t give Americans enough credit…they can see through this,” Gillespie says, scoffing at the notion Democrats are peddling that he’s “some kind of secret liberal. Virginia Republicans who go to conventions are smarter than that.”
AUDIO EMBED – Click the Play button to listen
In the Turner interview, Gillespie revels in the clear contrast between himself and Mark Warner. “He says he’s a fiscal moderate, but he’s voted for a trillion dollars in tax increases,” while also voting to add $6 trillion to the national debt. Gillespie hammers Warner on his support for the failed stimulus programs of the first Obama administration, and for being essentially a lockstep Obama tool on Capitol Hill. And, in a foreshadow of what we’re likely to see in 30 second television ads, Gillespie slams Warner for having promised to vote for a health care law that would allow people to keep their current health care plans. “He says the only problem [with Obamacare] is a flawed website rollout. I say it’s [more than 2000 pages] of flawed legislation that needs to be repealed and replaced.”
When the discussion in the interview turns to the Convention process and the importance of the Tea Party, Turner has a keen observation. Gillespie, she says, is a bridge between the Tea Party and the traditional GOP establishment. This sentiment accurately captures the fact that Gillespie is not “of” the current Tea Party, but that he considers himself fluent in the language of the new blood in the Party.
“No matter what door you use to come into the Republican Party, we’re all in the same tent,” Gillespie says. “I’ve always welcomed Tea Party and liberty movement activists,” he says, before talking about their shared goals, namely in seeking to restore constitutional principles, advance personal liberty, and in favoring limited government.
Gillespie’s chief rival for the Republican nomination, Fairfax businessman Shak Hill, has had some modest success in attracting Tea Party and libertarian grassroots leaders to his banner, including the likes of Chris Shores and Steve Waters. Yet, so far there has yet to be any identifiable groundswell from other grassroots leaders and activists favoring either candidate.
Local Republican committees around the state are currently in the process of holding mass meetings and conventions to certify delegates to the June 7 Republican State Convention in Roanoke. Too few of these local meetings have happened to yet gauge how effective Gillespie’s message is in garnering Tea Party support and turnout. Nor do we know how effective Hill has been in convincing potential delegates that Gillespie has too much baggage to effectively take on Mark Warner. What is clear so far, though, is that Gillespie is aware of the challenges in front of him, and appears committed to tackling them. That he even cares to try, instead of simply sticking with his “establishment” base, is a good sign, and reveals why Gillespie remains the candidate to beat in this race.