Step one for Gillespie: Unite Virginia’s GOP

Before he can take on Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie will have to unite a fractious Virginia GOP.

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. 

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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.

A top adviser to former President George W. Bush, he created the Republican State Leadership Committee, a group focused on electing Republicans to state-level offices, and served as a senior adviser on Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign.

“I’m flattered that so many Virginians think that my running may be the best path to victory,” Gillespie told The Hill.

Gillespie would bring some major assets to the uphill race against Warner. Gillespie is telegenic and folksy, has long ties to Virginia races, and could raise huge sums for a campaign, closing the spending gap against the well-funded and personally wealthy Warner, who has $7.1 million in the bank.

However, his deep Beltway connections could hurt him with the base, as could his support for comprehensive immigration reform.

“Gillespie could be a unity candidate, where different factions and coalitions of the party coalesce around him,” said one Washington, D.C.-based Republican.

The former RNC chairman could also benefit from a weak, unknown field of opponents. But if Gillespie wants to lock down the nomination, he’ll have to put in the legwork to woo potential delegates.

“It’s a huge lift,” said one GOP strategist who’s ran several statewide races. “You have to hit the chicken dinner circuit and hit it early. Conventions are won by who works the hardest and smartest, not who has the most money.”

GOP strategist Ford O’Connell said Gillespie’s early moves — keeping a relatively low profile and meeting with activists before making an announcement — could help endear him to activists. 

“He has to go in there and really do a lot of groundwork with the people who are going to be in the convention,” he said.