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WASHINGTON - SEPTEMBER 26:  White House Counselor Ed Gillespie briefs reporters at the White House September 26, 2008 in Washington, DC. President George W. Bush made a statement earlier urging the Congress to pass the administration?s $700 billion bailout plan to save the nation from financial crisis.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
So the Republicans may have finally found a candidate to go up against Senator Mark Warner (D. VA) this year:

Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman, has told senior members of his party that he will challenge Senator Mark R. Warner of Virginia and announce his candidacy as early as next week, giving Republicans a top-tier candidate in what has become one of the nation’s most competitive swing states.

The bid by Mr. Gillespie, a longtime party operative turned lobbyist with ties to both Republican grass-roots and establishment wings, also underlines the intent of more mainstream Virginia Republicans to retake control of the party after a Tea Party-backed candidate lost the governorship.

He begins the race as a pronounced underdog. Mr. Warner, a former governor now in his first Senate term, is the most popular politician in Virginia, and has $7.1 million in his campaign account and access to millions from his personal fortune. But Republicans in the state believe that, because of resistance to the new health law and President Obama’s declining popularity, they have an opportunity to at least make the race competitive.

In Mr. Gillespie, Republicans have a viable candidate who can raise the money needed to run in a large state and mount a serious campaign in a contest they had thought to be out of reach. Virginia Republicans, mirroring the party’s national struggle, are suffering from deep ideological rifts between the Tea Party activists, personified by last year’s losing candidate for governor, Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, and their traditional, business-oriented wing. - New York Times, 1/9/14

Once the news broke, the New Republic dug up a piece they did about Gillespie and he's to blame for helping an idiot like George W. Bush become President:

During the Clinton years, Gillespie had used his deep connections on Capitol Hill to turn himself into one of the GOP's most influential lobbyists and strategists. But, as the Clinton presidency drew to a close, Gillespie surely realized that Congress might be eclipsed as the center of Republican power. So he set out to attach himself to the campaign of the GOP presidential front-runner, Texas Governor George W. Bush. Judging from the Bush campaign's public image, one might have thought Gillespie would be less than welcome. After all, candidate Bush famously avoided being photographed with members of the congressional Republican leadership, and in September 1999 he even publicly repudiated them for trying "to balance their budget on the backs of the poor." But privately Gillespie was quickly embraced.

The courtship began in July 1999 when Gillespie orchestrated his friend John Kasich's endorsement of Bush. By April 2000 Karl Rove had invited him to be a member of the "Gang of Six," the band of Beltway operatives—Gillespie, Paxon, Mary Matalin, Charles Black, Vin Weber, and Barbour—who served as a formal strategy group for Bush's Texas brain trust. The gang, a who's who of Gingrich-era Washington insiders, represented the leading edge of the Beltway colonization of the Bush campaign--a transformation rarely remarked on amid all the coverage of Bush's Texas inner circle. Each member was given a specific area of strategy to manage. Matalin analyzed the structural weaknesses of the Gore campaign, Black plotted how to use the RNC, and Gillespie crafted the language of the attacks on Al Gore. Gillespie proved so valuable that he was soon asked by Bush communications director Karen Hughes and campaign manager Joe Allbaugh to serve as the program chairman of the Republican convention, the number-two position. Everything that appeared onstage (speakers, entertainment, scripts, and visuals) from 7:30 to 11:00 every night was under Gillespie's purview.

The theme, of course, was that George W. was "a different kind of Republican." In implementing it, Gillespie helped keep congressional party leaders—the very people he had helped bring to power—off the stage, replacing them with a multicultural lineup that started with The Rock and ended with Chaka Khan. In short, the image-maker who wrote and marketed the Contract With America also produced the stagecraft that erased the Contract's stain from the Republican Party. Not that Gillespie's buddies on the Hill seemed to mind. During the convention, Gillespie was fêted at a blowout thirty-ninth birthday party at a local Irish pub. Armey, Kasich, and other House Republicans banned from prime-time showed up to toast him.

After the convention, Gillespie's importance to the campaign only grew. September 2000 is remembered among Bushies as "Black September," the month of "rats, moles, and bad polls." In response, Hughes invited him to move down to Austin to help sharpen Bush's message and step up the attacks on Gore. Gillespie successfully flacked a story about how a group of pornographers had endorsed Gore, forcing the veep to disavow any association with the group. He also helpfully assisted reporters with stories about pollution on Gore's Tennessee farm. And he was at the center of the successful plan to transform Gore's misstatements during the debates into a national story about Gore's credibility.

On election night, Gillespie worked his contacts at the networks, scolding them for calling states too early for Gore. After the election he headed for Miami, where he became a familiar figure to anyone covering the recount: a tall, lanky man in a dark suit with a cell phone attached to his ear, constantly pacing the eighteenth floor of the Clark Center where officials were counting ballots. He participated in regular conference calls with Rove to develop message and strategy, and helped orchestrate--with Barry Jackson, a friend and Hill colleague who served as political director for the Contract With America and is now a top Rove aide--the campaign against Florida hand counts that culminated in the GOP mini-riot on November 22 at the Clark Center and in the canvassing board's decision to stop the recount. Gillespie was also instrumental in the public relations campaign to tag Gore as anti-military—leaking the Gore campaign's infamous legal memo on disqualifying military ballots to Robert Novak, who devoted a column to it and was soon on CNN asking Tom Daschle, "The figures I have, out of 2,200 absentee military votes that came in, 1,400 were rejected on technicalities. Is that any way to win a presidency?" Three weeks later, George W. Bush was the president-elect. - The New Republic, 1/10/14

So it's really no surprise that Republican operatives would be excited about him running against a popular incumbent like Warner.  And after the disastrous defeat the GOP suffered at the polls in Virginia this past November, they need a GOP savior to unite the divided GOP/Tea Party base:

Gillespie’s interest in a Senate campaign has excited national Republicans, who expect him to run. But the commonwealth’s nomination process, a June convention of GOP activists, has often boosted hard-line Tea Party and social conservatives over those preferred by national strategists, which has led to disastrous results for the party.

That process helped former state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) scare off then-Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R), a more centrist candidate, from running for governor, and nominated controversial Rev. E.W. Jackson (R) as Cuccinelli’s running mate. Both lost in the fall as Democrats swept statewide offices for the first time in decades.

A closer-than-expected Cuccinelli loss left both sides pointing fingers. Tea Party activists said the national party had abandoned them by not spending enough, while establishment Republicans said Cuccinelli had disqualified himself and cost the party an otherwise winnable race.

While Gillespie would give Republicans a top-tier candidate to take on the popular senator and former governor, first the longtime GOP strategist will have to smooth over tensions between the camps. - The Hill, 1/8/14

But Gillespie has a few things working in his favor:

One major asset Gillespie would bring to the race would be his fund-raising ability and major rolodex, including his time at the RSLC and helping to form the Super PAC American Crossroads.

Some other lesser well-known Republicans have indicated they will also seek the party nomination for the seat, but Gillespie would be the major front-runner.

Analysts believe Warner, a former Virginia governor, will still have an advantage, but some Republicans say if Gillespie is the Republican nominee then it could be a competitive race. Morton Blackwell, a longtime Republican Party activist from Virginia and a member of the Republican National Committee, for instance, says President Barack Obama will not help Warner in Virginia, a state he captured twice.

"In recent months Obama has declined significantly politically. People don't trust him," Blackwell said. - CNN, 1/10/14

So Gillespie has the connections, the savvy and the fundraising connections to potentially mount a serious campaign.  But if the only thing holding him back is uniting the GOP base, then he's going to face some serious problems.  Like this:

Romney Campaign Senior Adviser Ed Gillespie photographed at the Romney Campaign's Boston headquarters, Friday, June 1, 2012. (AP Photo/Josh Reynolds)
One of the steps former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie has taken before jumping into the Virginia Senate race is to remove a clip of him arguing for comprehensive immigration reform.

Gillespie removing the clip from his website of him discussing immigration reform with CNBC's Larry Kudlow (which you can view here) is likely a sign that Gillespie is making last-minute preparations before he officially jumps into the Virginia Senate race to take on incumbent Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA). Politico first reported the clip's removal.

Comprehensive immigration reform is not popular with tea party Republicans or the conservative base, both of which Gillespie will have to win over to have any chance of beating Warner. - TPM, 1/14/14

Yep, that's a sure sign that Gillespie is serious about this race.  But just deleting the clip isn't going to make this go away.  Gillespie will have to address this in front of the Tea Party loons who will be casting the vote for their nominee.  So Gillespie's challenge is to win over the Tea Party voters but avoid being the next Ken Cuccinelli (R. VA).  But Virginia Democrats are taking a page out of Virginia Republicans' book:

Democrats are ready with a strategy to use against Gillespie. They plan to characterize him as more Washington than Virginia, a professional insider with questionable business ties and scant record of service.

That was how Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s opponents cast him in 2009, when he lost in the Democratic primary for Virginia governor, and again in 2013, when he won the commonwealth’s top job.

“Ed Gillespie is Terry McAuliffe four years ago, not Terry McAuliffe in 2013,” said Geoff Garin, the pollster for Warner and McAuliffe. “After [2009] he spent every day for four years getting to know Virginia and demonstrating his commitment to Virginia.”

Before he can face Warner, Gillespie must secure the Republican nomination at a June state party convention in Roanoke. So far, two other GOP candidates are running: former Pentagon official and lobbyist Howie Lind, and financial planner Shak Hill.

Unlike in a primary, the biggest and best-funded campaign won’t necessarily prevail at a convention typically stocked with a small crowd of conservative activists. But there is little sign so far that Lind or Hill will have the grass-roots support to beat Gillespie.

Gillespie has closer ties to in-state Republicans than McAuliffe did with Virginia Democrats in 2009, and he has helped funnel money to campaigns in the commonwealth via his post as chairman of the Republican State Leadership Committee.

Gillespie has a tight relationship with former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) — he chaired McDonnell’s 2009 campaign — as well as with McDonnell’s top political aide, Phil Cox.

Cox and Leadership Committee President Chris Jankowski are likely to provide key informal advice to Gillespie’s campaign, and Gillespie is said to be eyeing some of the people who staffed state Sen. Mark D. Obenshain’s unsuccessful campaign for attorney general.

But for all his links to the party establishment, Gillespie never publicly took sides in the ideological battle that has flared within the Virginia GOP in recent years. - Washington Post, 1/12/14

And Gillespie would need a few things to work in his favor if he wants a serious shot at this race:

Gillespie needs at least one of these two things, and probably both, to happen:

1) He needs the environment to be strongly behind Republicans -- so much so that the "D" behind Warner's name becomes a serious problem for him. Think the GOP wave of 2010.


2) He needs Warner to stumble -- badly. That's a pretty tall task, especially given Warner has served nearly a decade in public office and has been very popular throughout.

Now, it should be noted that with the exception of Warner's first successful campaign for office -- the 2001 governor's race -- he hasn't really been tested (Warner also lost a Senate race in 1996). Because he was so popular, he didn't really face a tough path to the Senate in 2008.

(He did face a fellow former governor -- Republican Jim Gilmore -- but Gilmore never got even close to making it a competitive race and, accordingly, never raised the kind of money he needed to contest Warner's coronation. Warner won by more than 31 points -- a stunning margin, really.)

As Dave Weigel notes, Gillespie and Republicans seem to think Obamacare could become such an albatross that it will eventually weigh down Democratic senators who weren't previously targeted.

It's true that sometimes a strong environment for one party can take down a senator who wasn't really on the map before -- think Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) in 2010, Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) in 2008 and Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) in 2006.

But none of these senators were nearly as popular as Warner less than a year out. Feingold was never overly popular, Stevens saw his numbers drop significantly early in the 2008 cycle, and Burns was far less popular than his Montana colleague, Democrat Max Baucus. - Washington Post, 1/10/14

So we shall see what this race has to offer.  Gillespie not only has a long, uphill battle to unseat Warner but his real challenge is securing his party's nominee in a state where clowns like Cuccinelli, EW Jackson and Mark Obenshain were the top ticket nominees.

Originally posted to pdc on Tue Jan 14, 2014 at 10:53 PM PST.

Also republished by Virginia Kos, LatinoKos, and The Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party.

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