SEVERAL SOURCES HAVE INDICATED THAT FORMER RNC CHAIRMAN AND SENIOR BUSH ADMINISTRATION ADVISOR ED GILLESPIE HAS DEFINITELY DECIDED TO MAKE A RUN FOR THE GOP NOMINATION TO TAKE ON INCUMBENT U.S. SENATOR MARK WARNER THIS FALL.
Politico reports that Gillespie is likely to enter the race. Previous speculation was that Gillespie would make his announcement this morning at a GOP breakfast in Norfolk, but that did not happen. The Bull Elephant is now told that the announcement could come as early as Monday.
What does this mean for the GOP coalition?
Still reeling from a Democratic sweep of all three statewide elections this past November, Virginia Republicans are desperate for a win. Opinions on why the GOP candidates lost last fall vary widely, but whatever the ultimate root cause it is clear to all that the Republican Party did not approach last fall’s elections in a united fashion, and everyone understands that’s a recipe for disaster. Among the dozens of Virginia Republican activists with whom I’ve spoken, there is a genuine hunger to put divisions in the party behind us and focus instead on issues that unite us (e.g., opposition to Obamacare) so that we can beat Mark Warner. The feeling on the ground is that Warner is vulnerable in a way that would have seemed unimaginable just six months ago, and that this year’s Senate race provides the party a great opportunity to heal some of the wounds that doomed the party’s chances in 2013.
However, at this point, it’s unclear that Ed Gillespie is the right vehicle to achieve party unity at this juncture. Gillespie’s move comes despite mounting opposition to his candidacy from among grassroots activists suspicious of Gillespie’s involvement with the Bush administration, and with former Bush political advisor Karl Rove, whose latest mission has been to reverse the ascendance of the tea party and liberty movements and restore to power traditional Republican constituencies. My colleagues at Virginia Virtucon have also rightly pointed out valid substantive criticism of Gillespie’s record as a leader in Virginia and nationally. Adding to the growing feeling that Gillespie’s candidacy is more of an establishment power play than the kind of movement that could unite the party behind a winner is Gillespie’s
apparent choice of Ray Allen as his chief consultant. I personally have nothing against Allen, but as the current chief consultant for Congressman Eric Cantor (who has apparently made it his personal mission to unseat a majority of GOP district chairmen) and as the erstwhile partner to the traitorous Boyd Marcus (the Bill Bolling advisor who made a big splash by defecting to Terry McAuliffe), Ray Allen is not a choice designed to build bridges with the grassroots.[UPDATE: I stand corrected on this assertion, and am reliably informed that the Gillespie campaign has not retained Ray Allen. I regret the error.]
Gillespie has some formidable strengths as a candidate that no one should fail to recognize. He has a demonstrated talent as a communicator, and he is among a handful of Republicans nationwide that can conceivably go toe-to-toe with Mark Warner on fundraising (which in turn means that Democrat dollars may be diverted from other races around the country). Importantly for pro-convention conservatives, Gillespie has demonstrated his willingness to let his fate be decided by the grassroots. Instead of taking his toys and whining all the way home in the face of a Convention instead of a primary, Gillespie is willing to do the hard work of winning votes one at a time. Pro-convention conservatives should take heart at this, as it demonstrates Gillespie’s belief that his views can be palatable to a broad swath of the party’s activist base.
That said, Gillespie faces some serious hurdles. The level of opposition I’ve heard to the idea of Gillespie as our nominee, and the visceral negative reaction many key grassroots leaders have had to his candidacy, lead me to believe that Gillespie will likely face a significant challenger for the nomination. That may come in the form of a new candidate who has not yet announced interest in the race, or it may come in the form of conservatives coalescing behind one of the lesser-known declared candidates.
Gillespie will not simply be handed the nomination, but will have to earn it. To do that, he has several key challenges:
- He must demonstrate believably that he is a friend to conservatives, not a Karl Rove-style enemy. Rove and Gillespie teamed to form the Crossroads groups that Rove is now using to target tea party candidates. Gillespie will have a hard time convincing convention-goers that he’s not a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
- Gillespie must make it clear that his own record is distinct from that of his former associates. Tea party and libertarian activists who make up a huge portion of the Virginia convention electorate must be convinced that Gillespie’s support of former President Bush’s policies on issues like TARP don’t reflect Gillespie’s own beliefs. But that can’t be done through just lip service…Gillespie is going to have to show concrete examples of how he pushed for and advanced actual conservative principles on his own.
- The most prominent fault line within the Virginia GOP right now is between those who tend to favor Conventions and those who reliably favor primaries. To achieve a unified base of support, Gillespie (whose natural base of support is the consultant class that consistently favors primaries) will need to reach out to the pro-convention wing and feature them prominently in his campaign.
- Gillespie must actually run AS A CONSERVATIVE, not just as a Republican who might be able to beat Mark Warner. He’s got to overcome suspicions about his positions on certain key federal issues, such as support for a federal individual mandate for health insurance and support for amnesty for illegal immigrants (particularly given his apparent coziness with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce). To do this, he must go on record with conservative positions during the nomination contests in ways that convince conservatives he won’t run away from them in the general election campaign.
- To win a Convention and do so with a party unified behind him, Gillespie has to remain committed to a grassroots-driven process. That means a tireless six months of retail campaigning, which involves thousands of phone calls, tens of thousands of miles spent driving to local party events, countless rubber-chicken dinners, and making real connections with individual voters. As the 2013 Convention showed, anything can happen at a Convention. So far, Gillespie seems ready for such a grueling challenge, but if he’s going to pull it off and have activists from each component of the Republican coalition showing up for him in the general election, he can’t let up, even if it looks like he’s in the lead. At this point Gillespie has only been getting his feet wet with grassroots. It remains to be seen if he’s got the fire in the belly to carry it through in a way that his opponent(s) will certainly do.
Right now Gillespie seems the candidate most likely to win the nomination, but that will change if Gillespie fails on any one of the key challenges outlined above. The most critical time in this campaign is the next three weeks, when the bulk of activists will first start paying attention to this race in time to influence the decision of potential opponents to Gillespie in advance of the February 1 filing deadline.
Both Gillespie and any new potential opponents will have to move fast. The next three weeks will be interesting. Stay tuned.