Gillespie challenges Warner

Washington lobbyist and Republican political operative Ed Gillespie made Virginia political news last week with this video announcement that he plans to challenge Mark Warner for Senate this year. This decision apparently pleases Virginia GOP political activists: state Republican Party Chairman Pat Mullins, for example, called Gillespie a “good candidate” in this Bearing Drift op-ed (intended more to frame Jeff Shapiro as a Warner supporter than to call for a Gillespie run).

Some think Governor McAuliffe’s success offers reasons for optimism despite Warner’s popularity (57% total approval rating according to this poll).  Bearing Drift columnists Norm Leahy and Paul Goldman argue in a Washington Post editorial that Gillespie’s lobbying background won’t hurt him given the way McAuliffe overcame his own political fundraiser history.  And Shaun Kenney, also at Bearing Drift, makes a case that Warner should fear Gillespie’s candidacy, mostly because he believes the challenger will be able to mobilize conservatives in the state while painting Warner as responsible for the Affordable Care Act.

I’m not so sure.  It’s true that Terry McAuliffe overcame his history as a political insider and money man to some degree, but it’s not clear that he could have defeated a more mainstream Republican.  In the end it seems that he won despite himself because of the severe right turn the Virginia GOP took by nominating the slate it did.  Ken Cucinelli carried enough right wing baggage on his own, but nominating E. W. Jackson helped tar the entire Republican ticket as radical.  While these nominations certainly kept the grassroots on the right motivated, it was also a liberal organizer’s dream ticket that helped them mobilize Democratic voters in an off-year election.  Republicans win off-year elections because their base remains motivated while much of the left tends to stay home, and the perception of Cuccinelli and Jackson as far to the right helped turn out liberal voters who stayed home in the past.  It didn’t hurt that right-wingers clearly showed their willingness to actually use their power to enact their agenda during the 2012 General Assembly session.

It also created a split in the GOP between Tea Party activists and Chamber of Commerce Republicans.  This limited Cucinelli’s ability to raise money for the race – at least one prominent GOP donor actually held a fundraiser for Terry McAuliffe.  It also caused prominent and popular Republicans like Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms to endorse McAuliffe.  It’s a fair bet that a non-trivial number of moderate conservatives, frightened by the GOP social agenda (which many think hurts Virginia’s chances to bring new jobs to the Commonwealth), voted for McAuliffe or stayed home.

Ed Gillespie is not Ken Cuccinelli, and Democrats who don’t normally vote in mid-term elections won’t mobilize to keep him out of the Senate in the way they did to keep Cuccinelli out of the Governor’s mansion.  But Gillespie won’t be able to mobilize radical Republicans in the same way either – it’s not even clear that he could win a primary, much less a convention, if a Tea Party favorite decides to run.  If you’re looking for a low-turnout election, try a summer primary in a non-presidential election year., and this is made to order for a challenge from the right.

Gillespie is a consummate Washington insider.  While McAuliffe took hits for his aggressive political fundraising, this guy is a bona fide lobbyist.  Democrats will have no trouble painting him as part of the problem to people who think anyone with Beltway contacts is suspect.  Moreover, his photo is in the dictionary next to the entry for “RINO. “  Gillespie will have to move to the right and embrace more radical views if he wants to overcome this label, and this of course will help motivate Democrats and hurt him with some Republicans.  This will be a difficult fence for Gillespie to sit.

GOP activists hope that painting Warner as responsible for Obamacare will help; Cuccenelli and others argue that focusing on disapproval of the law narrowed the race during the final week of campaigning.  Perhaps, but probably only with more conservative voters – the ones who are already mobilized and would never vote for a Democrat anyway.   Exit polls from last year’s election show that only 27% of voters said health care was their most important issue, and Cuccinelli won this group by only four points – many voters who “somewhat oppose” the ACA voted for McAuliffe.

Additionally, last year’s election took place in an environment that focused narrowly on the problems with the ACA website roll out, and by next year the system will be functioning more smoothly.  And those who have lost existing plans and became annoyed at the broken promise that they would be able to keep plans they like will have figured out that the new system offers far better plans at lower cost for most consumers.  I believe that many politicians think the electorate is far more conservative than it really is and GOP officials in particular think voters hate Obamacare far more than they really do.  So health care may not be the mobilizing issue many conservatives think it is.

Ed Gillespie has serious vulnerabilities that both arise from and go beyond his history as a lobbyist and political operative.  First of course is that he simply does not fit the ideological preferences of the current Virginia Republican Party – unless of course the Democratic sweep last November beat some sense into folks who believe that the GOP loses elections because they keep nominating candidates that are not conservative enough.

But he also has a long history of specific policy positions that Warner can exploit.  One advantage that challengers often have is that they have a chance to create themselves as an alternative to an incumbent and run against an unpopular legislative record from a clean slate.  And according to the poll linked above, almost 40% of Virginian’s have never even heard of Ed Gillespie.  Without this history he has a chance to build a positive image, but Warner and Democrats will have the resources to make his positions clear (Prediction: Republicans will whine about “negative campaigning” when they do this).  Virginians like Warner and I don’t see the hook for a run against him; even the GOP can create a desire for change by tying him to Obamacare Democrats can paint Gillespie as a poor alternative in a way that mobilizes liberals and reduces moderate GOP turnout.

This article in ThinkProgress contains some examples.  These include Gillespie’s work for the second Bush Administration – he supported privatization of Social Security and the invasion of Iraq, both very unpopular positions.  His record on women’s rights and homosexual marriage will help mobilize the liberal base, especially if he expresses them more strongly to please social conservatives.  Warner will be able to emphasize his lobbying background and paint it negatively by pointing out that he worked for tobacco companies, Enron and other oil companies, and the financial services industry.

Many on the left will try to accuse Gillespie of supporting an individual mandate to purchase health care insurance, but I generally agree with Mr. Kenney on the speciousness of this claim.  Still, he is vulnerable on health care.  He has called employer based health insurance “anachronistic,” which makes possible a charge that he would vote to end this system.  He’s also supported key elements of Obamacare, including expanded Medicaid, government subsidies, and private sector state exchanges.

Terry McAuliffe indeed overcame his history as a political operative to become Governor of Virginia.  But he ran against a polarizing candidate (and slate of candidates) that mobilized liberals who don’t normally vote in off-year elections.  Cuccinelli also split the GOP between Tea Party/Evangelical activists and conservative businessmen more interested in practical economic policies than divisive social issues.  Ed Gillespie won’t have an opponent that motivates supporters who normally stay home while splitting the opposing party.

Moreover, his lobbying work creates a legislative history for him in a way McAuliffe’s did not.  McAuliffe’s fundraising made it easy to tie him to certain political figures – the Clintons, Obama – but these are popular figures who campaigned for him, helping him get out the vote.  Gillespie’s associates him with an unpopular president, as well as policies that frighten seniors and special interest groups that many blame for causing some social or economic problem – can’t wait to see the ads showing him supporting privatization of social security while lobbying for the financial industry and pointing out to seniors what the 2008 financial collapse would have meant for their portfolios under such a plan.  And if Warner’s people can find a photo of Gillespie with Ken Lay…

If Ed Gillespie can win the GOP nomination – itself not a foregone conclusion – he may be able to give Senator Warner a run.  But McAuliffe’s win says very little about his chances, and pounding the Senator on health care won’t be enough.  I predict a Warner win.

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