A GOP star is born in Virginia
© Greg Nash

A new GOP star was born in Virginia with Republican Ed Gillespie's near-upset of Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerGun control debate shifts to hardening schools after Texas shooting Warner: Why doesn't Trump understand that it's illegal for other countries to interfere in US elections? Warner sees 'credible components' in report that foreign governments offered to aid Trump campaign MORE (D). 

In a race few thought Gillespie could win, the consummate political insider nearly pulled off the most shocking victory of the midterm cycle.

While Warner appears to have triumphed, Gillespie is a big winner as well, having made himself the odds-on favorite to be the Republican nominee for governor of Virginia in 2017.

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"Gillespie has now put himself in a serious position for the governorship, no question about it," said Daniel Palazzolo, a political science professor at the University of Richmond.

Gillespie did not respond to a request for comment.

Warner attacked Gillespie throughout the campaign for his career as a D.C. lobbyist, and particularly for his work with Enron, the energy giant that went bankrupt and was accused of massive fraud. He also attacked him for his time in the George W. Bush White House.

The senator — who is seen as a potential 2016 vice presidential pick on a Democratic ticket — also trounced Gillespie in fundraising by a margin of more than 2 to 1, with Warner raising $16.36 million and Gillespie raising $6.84 million, according to campaign finance records.

Given that Virginia had gone for President Obama in 2008 and 2012, few observers gave Gillespie much of a chance, and neither party devoted major resources to the race.

But Gillespie still kept it close. With more than 2 million Virginians voting, he trails by less than 1 percent and fewer than 17,000 votes, according to The Associated Press. 

With 99.96 percent of votes reported, Warner's lead was 49.16 percent to Gillespie's 48.39 percent, with the remainder of voters choosing another candidate.

Gillespie’s success could be a model for other Republicans seeking to oust incumbent Democrats in swing states.

He ran as a centrist, was careful to avoid being labeled a Tea Party Republican and sought to appeal to urban, Northern Virginia voters by defending the name of the Washington Redskins in a campaign ad.

Gillespie political adviser Doug McAuliffe declined to discuss Gillespie's political future since the vote had not been declared official.

"Ed is a conservative who was able to transcend political labels. He's a charismatic, issue-driven candidate who was able to rise above a stereotype," McAulliffe said.

Gillespie could have an inside track on governor's mansion in 2017, when Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) won’t be on the ballot. Virginia’s state constitution bars governors from serving consecutive terms.

"The Virginia GOP's bench is pretty empty," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "Now they have a potential candidate that nearly toppled the person thought to be the state's most popular politician."

Gillespie’s most likely challenger in the governor’s race would be state senator Mark Obenshain (R). 

Obenshain, who is seen as the right of Gillespie, narrowly lost the race for state attorney general last year and has indicated he might be interested in running in 2017.

In a politically purple state, Gillespie could argue that he's more electable than Obenshain.

"No one from the far left or the far right can win in Virginia," said one Virginia political insider. "You have to be able to walk the line and Gillespie has proven he can do that.

"He's set himself up for whatever options he wants. He's walking away as a successful challenger. If you're going to lose a race, that's how you want to lose: with options for the future."

Palazzolo said Warner is more politically damaged after this election than Gillespie.

"Warner is now a centrist in a party that this week is trying to figure out if it's smart to be centrist," Palazzolo said.