With optimism growing in national Republican circles that the party can capture the Senate majority this November, former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie is on the verge of announcing a challenge to Virginia Sen. Mark Warner (D), and may do so as early as this week if not today.
Gillespie, also a former chairman of the Virginia Republican Party and a Capitol Hill staff member beginning his career with former Rep. Dick Armey (R-TX-26) who would later become Majority Leader, may be embarking upon what most believe is a daunting task. But, there are some budding trends that suggest a Warner upset is at least within the realm of possibility.
Though the senator is one of the most well-prepared politicians in the country, if not the best, Virginia is still a state that can swing both ways particularly in low turnout elections. Unquestionably the state is trending toward the Democrats, especially when looking at the elections since 2004 (with the exception of those in 2009 and 2010), but it is not so far beyond the “purple” range as to make a Republican victory scenario unrealistic.
While there is no doubt that Sen. Warner must be rated a strong favorite in 2014, the Republicans fielding a potentially strong candidate against him – a person such as Ed Gillespie – will force the senator and the Democratic Party leadership to respond seriously and expend major resources to secure victory. From a national Republican strategic perspective, making Virginia competitive helps achieve the party goal of expanding the electoral playing field because their majority prospects are dependent upon a GOP wave forming. Maximizing the number of contested seats is a key tenet toward creating such a political climate.
While recent Virginia electoral trends and the incumbency factor certainly cut for Sen. Warner, Gillespie possesses important strengths of his own. First, with his wide array of national contacts and public exposure, the former RNC chairman has the ability to raise the kind of money necessary to compete in a major US Senate race. Second, his experience in the campaign world and having social and electronic media expertise, the former RNC chairman possesses a compelling presence, command of issues, and the ability to go toe-to-toe with an experienced senator in debates, public appearances, and while delivering media messages.
Both men will have whatever resources are required from both an internal and external campaign perspective. Interest groups supporting both candidates will invest in the Virginia campaign, and the race should attract a great deal of national media attention.
Sen. Warner has twice won statewide office in Virginia, once as governor in 2001 and for his current post in 2008. He racked up a senatorial percentage win of 65 percent and scored 52 percent in the governor’s campaign. In his first run for public office, Warner fell to then-Sen. John Warner (R) 47-53 percent in 1996.
The campaigns will likely be decided around the national political mood, and particularly in relation to how the Obamacare issue plays out. If millions lose their health insurance, and/or the premium costs raise to excessive heights, then many Democratic office holders who supported the legislation, like Sen. Warner, could find themselves treading in vulnerable waters. If the situation stabilizes and improves in the coming months, then a more normal incumbent-friendly political trend will likely take hold.
In any event, it is apparent that Ed Gillespie challenging Sen. Mark Warner is at least a short-term positive Republican Party development, irrespective of the election’s ultimate outcome.