How Seriously Should We Take Ed Gillespie?

How Seriously Should We Take Ed Gillespie?
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Former RNC Chairman and Bush adviser Ed Gillespie announced today that he will challenge Mark Warner for the Virginia Senate seat that Warner won in 2008. This has set off a lot of speculation. After all, Warner is thought to be largely invulnerable. The congealing conventional wisdom is that (1) because of Warner’s immense strength in the state, (2) Gillespie is trying to set himself up for a future run, probably for governor in 2017. (Terry McAuliffe is term-limited, which means there will be an open seat race that year.)

I don’t find that explanation particularly convincing. Now, to be clear, I do believe that Gillespie is aware that losing a statewide race has been a steppingstone to the governorship in the past. In particular, Mark Warner ran a very competitive race against Sen. John Warner in 1996, losing by only five points to someone who was thought of as unbeatable. So (2) is certainly part of the calculus.

My quibble is more with (1), both generally speaking and (especially) as it relates to (2). The 1996 campaign was good for Mark Warner because he took a race that was thought to be unwinnable and turned it into a winnable one. That convinced party officials that he wasn’t just a tech magnate and that he would be able to win on a more favorable playing field.

But underlying that was an important fact: John Warner was well liked, but he was nowhere near as invulnerable as people thought. In fact, if the national environment had been a bit less favorable for Republicans, and had Mark Warner spent more time courting rural voters (as he did during his successful 2001 gubernatorial campaign), he might have won.

Put differently, if (1) were true, why would we expect Gillespie to get into the race? Losing by, say, 20 points to Warner, a la Jim Gilmore in 2008, would do nothing to advance his electability.

I think the better read on this is that Gillespie has reason to believe that (1) isn’t as true as we assume, and that this race is winnable. The thinking probably proceeds in two steps: The Free Beacon -- an admittedly conservative polling outfit -- released polling on the Gillespie/Warner matchup (among others) in mid-November. It found that people do, generally speaking, have a favorable opinion of Warner (57 percent to 34 percent, to be precise) and approve of the job he is doing (57 percent to 37 percent).

But it also found that, consistent with exit polling from the 2013 gubernatorial races, both the Affordable Care Act and President Obama have net negative approval ratings in the state. It also found Warner dancing around the 50 percent mark when matched up against a variety of opponents, though with large leads. This is similar to where public polling had the George Allen-James Webb matchup in July 2006.

Now, the “50 percent rule” is certainly more of a heuristic for determining potentially vulnerable incumbents than a solid rule of thumb. But I suspect that if Warner were at, say, 60 percent in those matchups, Gillespie would have avoided the race.

So there is evidence of softness in Warner’s numbers. Gillespie is probably betting that he can soften them further by emphasizing Warner’s support for Obamacare, for the defense cuts in the sequestration law, and for gun control legislation (the polling showed support for any of these positions would tighten the race). The idea is that the Virginia public thinks of Warner as a moderate-to-conservative Democrat; if that image were tarnished, voters would be less likely to support him.

But even that would probably not be enough to win the seat. Gillespie likely needs either a self-inflicted wound by Warner, further deterioration in the national environment for Democrats, or a drop-off in Democratic turnout. Remember, Democrats very nearly lost the state Senate when one of their candidates held on by a handful of votes in a district that had voted for Obama by 15 points in 2012. The drop-off is a very real, consistent phenomenon, and if Warner ends up with something that looks more like the 2009 electorate than the one in 2012, he really could lose.

Of course, none of this is to predict a Gillespie victory. He has his own issues that will be exploited by Democrats. The national environment may improve or (more likely) stay roughly the same, rather than deteriorate further. And Warner is still above 50 percent. In other words, Gillespie has his work cut out for him.

But neither is the race the Sisyphean venture that others have projected. For my money, it probably starts out somewhere between “Lean” and “Likely” Democrat. 

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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