With the stink of their party’s statewide sweep not yet three months old, Virginia Republicans said Ed Gillespie should have little trouble winning the GOP Senate nomination in June and advancing to take on Democrat Mark Warner.
Republicans concede that Gillespie, a former lobbyist and political consultant who announced his candidacy last week, faces a challenging fight against the first-term senator and popular former governor. But getting through the state GOP's nominating convention, which invites a more conservative swath of the party than a primary and last year produced a surprising result, should not be nearly as significant a hurdle.
As former Gov. Bob McDonnell's felony indictment Tuesday and a state Senate victory for the Democrats added to Republicans' woes, elected officials and party insiders said last year's stinging losses in races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general have left GOP activists clamoring for, above all, a conservative candidate who can raise the kind of money it will take to legitimately compete with Warner.
Gillespie “does have to take [the convention] seriously, but I think people want to win a statewide race in Virginia,” Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., said. “Having lost three races last fall, I think they recognize we need a candidate who is in the hunt when it comes to the last part of the race ... and that means somebody who is capable of raising the money.”
Even with the advantage in the nomination fight, Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman, spent his first few days on the trail reaching out to the kind of voters he’ll count on to support him both at the convention and in his general-election campaign field operation.
After announcing his first-ever bid for office on Jan. 16 in an online video, Gillespie hit the road for meetings with grass-roots activists in Richmond, Danville, Lynchburg and Roanoke. He plans to continue those introductions in the coming weeks, a campaign spokesman said.
As part of his campaign rollout, Gillespie announced on Tuesday the hiring of four campaign staffers. Two of them, campaign manager Chris Leavitt and communications director Paul Logan, held the same positions on the recently concluded and unsuccessful attorney general campaign of state Sen. Mark Obenshain.
“I think Ed and what he stands for will bring all parts of our party together,” said Linwood Cobb III, party chairman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s 7th District. “I think you’ll see factions from across the board eager to line up and get him the nomination.”
Gillespie's competition is retired Naval officer Howie Lind, who recently announced raising $300,000 in his first six months in the race, and the lesser-known Shak Hill, a financial consultant. In a recent missive, Lind called Gillespie a "career Washington insider and lobbyist," a refrain Gillespie is already hearing from Democrats as well.
The state GOP convention will be held in Roanoke on June 7 and is expected to have a lower attendance than the 2013 event in Richmond. The party stumbled out of that convention, where E.W. Jackson, a minister with a treasure trove of past controversial comments, was surprisingly nominated as lieutenant governor on the fourth ballot.
Jackson, who lost by 11 points, may have helped drag down the ticket. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli lost the gubernatorial race by less than 3 points, and Obenshain lost the attorney general contest after a recount. The victory by Democrat Terry McAuliffe marked the first time since 1977 that the party in power in the White House won the Virginia gubernatorial race.
“There’s certainly no guarantees at a convention,” said Gary Byler, a longtime state party leader from Virginia Beach. “They’re a living, breathing creature. If there are more than two candidates, who knows what’s going to happen? Last year’s convention proved that, as well as certainly 1978. I do not anticipate that sort of deal here.”
The 1978 convention saw Obenshain’s father, Dick Obenshain, a former state party chairman, win the Senate nomination after an epic six ballots. The elder Obenshain died in a plane crash two months later, and John Warner, who finished second at the convention, was chosen to take his place on the ballot. Warner served in the Senate for the next 30 years before retiring and being replaced by Mark Warner, who won in 2008 by 31 points.
Morton Blackwell, a longtime Republican National Committeeman from Virginia, said Gillespie’s candidacy could also have a beneficial downballot effect for the GOP. With Democrats targeting retiring Rep. Frank R. Wolf’s 10th District in Northern Virginia, Gillespie's ability to help the party in other races by keeping the Senate contest in play will be part of the pitch delegates hear when they gather to nominate a candidate in a few months.
“He’s a solid conservative,” Blackwell said, “and everybody knows that we need a candidate who has an opportunity to run a well-funded race to beat Mark Warner.”