This candidate’s too “establishment.” That candidate is too unknown. This candidate doesn’t have any money. Which candidate is just right?
The talk on everyone’s lips at this past weekend’s Republican Party Advance was about who might be vying for the Republican nod for next year’s U.S. Senate race to unseat Democrat Mark Warner. As always, observers look to which potential candidates took the time to put on a Friday night hospitality suite. Hosting a suite usually generates a lot of buzz about a potential candidate’s intentions, and this year was no different for hosts Del. Rob Bell, Rev. E.W. Jackson, and Del. Barbara Comstock—each of whom has to one degree or another disclaimed any interest in seeking the Senate nod. The two declared candidates, Howie Lind and Shak Hill, also had suites.
Not in attendance but equally in the conversation were Sen. Jeff McWaters, retired Gen. Jerry Boykin, and Stafford County Supervisor and former Lt. Governor candidate Susan Stimpson. McWaters has reportedly indicated some interest in a run, but to my knowledge neither of the others have made any statements about a run.
Most of the buzz at the Advance and in the press has been the entry into the fray of former RPV Chairman and consummate national GOP insider, Ed Gillespie. What had been some quiet whispers in the week or two leading up to the Advance became a full-blown exploratory campaign at the Homestead event this weekend, generating news coverage from a variety of state and national outlets. The chatter among Republican activists is that Gillespie has all but thrown his hat into the ring, but wants to take care to build a modicum of grassroots support before he actually declares.
So who can win the nomination? More importantly, who should win the nomination in accordance with the Buckley Rule (which says to nominate the most conservative candidate who can win)? It’s still pretty early, but filing deadlines are fast approaching, so here’s my initial take.
Rob Bell: Bell is the hardest working man in Virginia politics. His 2013 run for the Attorney General nomination was a model of how a statewide nomination campaign should be run, not only for leaving no stone unturned and for being completely thorough and disciplined, but also for the fact that he kept the race positive, even when he was down significantly against his opponent. The only problem with Bell’s run was the fact that his opponent was another very well-liked legislator, and one with a legendary name in Virginia Republican circles, Sen. Mark Obenshain. Bell says squarely that he is not running for Senate. However, he was born to be Attorney General, and it seems his presence at this Advance was likely to lay a marker for another run in 2017. I’m looking forward to that.
E.W. Jackson: The recently defeated minister publicly says only that he’s “running for Jesus” at the moment. Quietly, many conservatives and erstwhile supporters are hoping that he’ll be running for the exit from this race. While Jackson ran a fairly solid grassroots and social media campaign, and overcame the odds on fundraising, his controversial statements on social and religious issues were toxic to many voters (even as many of those statements were twisted out of context), leading him to be the lowest vote getter of all major party statewide candidates this year. Despite this, I’m told Jackson is indeed proceeding as if he will run, even if has perhaps not actually made the final decision to do so. His oratory will be a force to reckon with at a Convention, but after failures in the 2012 Senate race and 2013 Lt. Governor’s race, one is left wondering if enough Republicans will have faith that he can credibly take on Mark Warner. My guess is not, but I’ve been wrong before.
Del. Barbara Comstock: This Fairfax legislator has won re-election in a tough district for Republicans by working hard and sticking to a practical message. From what I can tell, her voting record is pretty solid (with perhaps a stray vote here or there that may give conservatives pause). She’s demonstrated pretty good fundraising ability, which was underscored at the Advance by the fact that Citizens United was the sponsor of her suite. Comstock is an articulate and attractive standard bearer for the cause, which landed her a speaking role at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa and has her in the pole position to succeed 10th District Congressman Frank Wolf, whenever he retires. Importantly, she is a woman. Shaun Kenney may think I’m sexist for saying so, but having a solid woman at the top of the ticket is an electoral advantage not to be casually dismissed. Just as importantly, she seems to play well in the GOP sandbox, and could be a candidate acceptable to each of the various components of the GOP coalition. I think she is among the few who can beat Mark Warner…if she runs instead of waiting to fill Frank Wolf’s shoes. Our parent blog, Virginia Virtucon, has already endorsed Comstock.
Shak Hill and Howie Lind: I’m not trying to be unkind, but I don’t see either of the announced candidates yet making a splash. Although admittedly the vast majority of potential Convention-goers have not begun paying attention to the race, thousands of them have been getting each candidate’s emails for months without it generating detectable support. They have both served their country honorably, and both appear to be articulate spokesmen for our cause, but neither has impressed the donor base or even large numbers of the people in their own back yards in Fairfax and Loudoun. The electorate may come to settle on one of these candidates, but probably only if no one else actually runs. Maybe we’ll see a turnaround.
Sen. Jeff McWaters: Representing Virginia Beach, McWaters comes with a healthy pool of potential supporters in a Convention setting. His executive experience also suggest the gravitas of a Senator and that he would be able to go toe-to-toe with Warner on the debate stage. Two problems: he voted for this spring’s tax and transportation bill, and he made his fortune in the healthcare business that’s now lobbying for Medicaid expansion. Not the kind of resume items one usually finds in a successful Convention candidate, but if McWaters actually works to find and turn out his voters (possibly in alliance with like-minded legislators from across the Commonwealth), he could actually succeed in making himself the target of millions of dollars in “war on women” negative advertising next summer and fall. A credible candidate to be sure.
Gen. Jerry Boykin: Speaking of the “war on women,” Gen. Boykin would be a poster child for this effort. Unfairly or not, the General’s stunning personal history and military experience would be virtually ignored in the general election, where remarks about “hygiene” issues with women in combat units would be hung around his neck like an anchor. Together with the General’s service as a senior official of the Family Research Council, Boykin’s post-service record would become a lightning rod for the left—more so than even with Ken Cuccinelli. That said, one does not become a Major General in the Special Ops community without a great deal of personal character and intellectual heft, so don’t count Boykin out…just be prepared for a nasty fight.
Susan Stimpson: This Chairman of the Stafford County Board of Supervisors ran one of the better Lieutenant Governor campaigns this past spring, attracting support from a wide swath of the party, including traditionalists as well as tea party and liberty movement die-hards. Stimpson has an impressive record of accomplishments during her time in county government, getting things done while never shying from speaking truth to power. This confident conservative with libertarian bona fides has what it takes to win a Convention. She also has what it takes to rattle and then defeat Mark Warner, if she can overcome her lack of a large natural fundraising base. The big question is whether she will actually leverage the considerable political clout she’s built statewide to take the fight to the U.S. Senate. And did I mention she’s a woman?
Ed Gillespie: This establishment heavy hitter comes with bucket loads of cash and a ready-made organization. The latest in a long line of political jobs he’s held is running the Republican State Leadership Committee, an organization dedicated to funding winning down-ballot races in the states (and as such, he was Mark Obenshain’s largest benefactor). But the former RNC Chairman has some baggage. During his brief stint as RPV Chairman, he is credited/blamed with the driving passage of HB3202 and its reviled regional taxing authorities. He’s also got a long line of corporate lobbying clients waiting to be exploited by Warner’s opposition research outfit. That said, Gillespie can be counted on to mount a well-funded and well-run campaign, ticking off every one of Shaun’s seven points. But in doing so, he may be a coalition buster within the party, as his close associations with the second Bush administration and as co-founder with Karl Rove of Crossroads GPS, he is likely to repel big chunks of the base. We know Gillespie has the chops to run a good general election campaign. The key here is whether Gillespie has the stomach to earn a victory the old fashioned Convention way: one vote at a time, in the face of what is bound to be determined opposition.
So which one is “just right”?
– = * = –