Republicans continue to expand the Senate map in their quest to win back the majority in 2014. With former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie in the race, Democratic Sen. Mark Warner can no longer take his re-election race for granted. But Virginia is still a long way from the most competitive contests in the country.
Gillespie should be a credible contender who can raise considerable money, given his national connections. At the same time, he isn’t parachuting into the commonwealth. He is a former chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia and has been active in federal and state campaigns for almost a decade. But while he is well-known to political reporters and insiders, Gillespie is far from a household name in Virginia.
It’s true that Virginia just elected a long-time party operative and fundraiser as governor last fall, when voters chose Democrat Terry McAuliffe. McAuliffe arguably had even more baggage than Gillespie, but the Democrat had the advantage of running against Ken Cuccinelli, the state's extremely polarizing attorney general.
Gillespie has to bring down Warner, who has an established, popular brand in the state. Three polls conducted by Quinnipiac University in the last half of 2013 showed the senator with job approval ratings over 60 percent. Gillespie will have to use his money to both introduce himself to voters and make the case that voters should fire Warner.
And unlike Republican challengers trying to knock off incumbent senators in Arkansas, North Carolina, Louisiana, and Alaska, Gillespie will have to do it in a state that President Barack Obama won in 2012 and 2008.
Warner wasn’t taking his race for granted — he had $7.1 million on hand at the end of the year and has personal money to spend, if necessary. But Gillespie, at a minimum, will keep the senator from putting his campaign on cruise control. We’ll see if the race develops into something more.