Virginia’s brewing 2014 Senate race flips 2013’s script


The hack versus the partisan — sound familiar?

An interesting wrinkle of former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie’s likely challenge to Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) is that the forthcoming campaign, so long as it materializes, would in some ways simply reverse the arguments from last year’s Virginia gubernatorial race. In that contest, won by former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe over outgoing state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R), Republicans portrayed their opponent as a sleazy Washington insider, while Democrats attacked Cuccinelli as a rigid, extreme partisan.

With Gillespie now likely to enter, Democrats are calling him a “DC shadow lobbyist.” Gillespie, meanwhile, believes that Warner hasn’t lived up to his moderate reputation and is a rubber stamp for President Obama: “Mark Warner has not turned out to be the senator a lot of Virginians thought he would be,” Gillespie said last month.

The messages that parties use to win elections always contain at least some hypocrisy when compared to other races, and such a flipping of the script in 2014 from a race concluded just two months ago is a good example of the frequent plasticity of politics.

Of course, comparing Cuccinelli, whose hard-right social issues positions alienated the wine and cheese wing of the Virginia GOP, to Warner is a bit of a stretch, which is why Warner is still a strong favorite to win this race. Warner’s governorship is fondly remembered by many Virginians of both parties, and he waltzed to his first term, winning 65% against former Gov. Jim Gilmore (R). Yes, 2008 was a good year for Democrats, but Warner ran about a dozen points ahead of President Obama in Virginia that November. That’s some serious crossover appeal for someone who, at the time, was not an incumbent.

One other big difference between Warner and Cuccinelli is that Warner is personally wealthy and already has a mighty $7 million warchest, whereas Cuccinelli is not wealthy and had trouble raising money.

Gillespie is banking on a nationalization of this race, hoping that Obama’s approval ratings continue to slide and that Obamacare, which Warner voted for, becomes an even bigger albatross for Democrats across the country. It’s certainly possible, but we also see this race as existing somewhere on the periphery of the overall Senate map.

Even in a year where Republicans need to gain six seats to win the Senate, this race is probably not going to determine which party wins the majority. If Gillespie pulls the upset, he’ll probably be more like the 55th Republican Senate seat in the next Congress, not the 51st. A Gillespie victory would therefore likely indicate double-digit GOP gains in the Senate — something that certainly is possible given the party’s long list of plausible targets this year, but not something we’d predict at the moment. Gillespie needs a GOP wave or for Warner to make a very costly mistake or two. Still, national Republicans must be pleased that a viable candidate is stepping up for them in a Purple state; as we noted last month, they still lack top-tier candidates in some other states where they could conceivably win.

One important factor to watch is that the Republican Senate nominee is slated to be chosen at a June convention. Readers will recall that the last convention, in 2013, selected fringe candidate E.W. Jackson (R) as the party’s lieutenant gubernatorial nominee. It’s not impossible to imagine Gillespie having trouble at a convention, too, given that he’s the epitome of the Republican establishment and a low-turnout convention is likely to be dominated by Tea Partiers.

Assuming he makes the general election, Gillespie is a serious candidate who will be able to raise a ton of money. This race is now on the competitive board as Likely Democratic, a shift from Safe Democratic.

One last thing: Gillespie and McAuliffe are, in many ways, two sides to the same coin. They both served as top political advisors to two recent two-term presidents (McAuliffe to Bill Clinton and Gillespie to George W. Bush) and as chairmen of their respective national parties during the 2004 presidential election. They both are political rainmakers who have made beaucoup bucks working for clients and causes that some may find unsavory, and they even used to appear at events together, serving as a kind of “Odd Couple” political panel.

As Richmond Times-Dispatch political columnist Jeff Schapiro wrote last month in response to rumors of Gillespie’s entry: “Didn’t we just elect this guy governor?”

One wonders how much McAuliffe’s victory is playing into Gillespie’s apparent decision to enter the race. It’s easy to imagine him thinking: “Hey, if Terry can do it, why can’t I?”

Table 1: Crystal Ball Senate ratings change