Gillespie will challenge Warner, hire Obenshain campaign manager

Former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie has decided to challenge Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and will announce his campaign next week, two sources close to Gillespie confirm to The Hill.

Gillespie is also close to finalizing much of his campaign staff  and has selected Chris Leavitt as campaign manager — a young GOP strategist who most recently ran Republican Mark Obenshain's 2013 race for Virginia attorney general. Obenshain lost the race by fewer than 1,000 votes, out-performing the rest of the GOP ticket.

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Much of the rest of Gillespie's team will be veterans of Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell's (R) successful 2009 campaign, on which Gillespie was a senior strategist. 

"He is running. It'll be announced next week," one of the sources said Thursday night.

Gillespie himself wouldn't confirm or deny that he'd firmly made a decision to run in a brief phone conversation with The Hill earlier Thursday evening.

"I've been asking folks and talking to people about advice, that kind of thing. I've got until Feb. 1st," he told The Hill, referencing Virginia's filing deadline.

When asked if he had been telling people he was definitely in or not, he again demurred.

"I've been having conversations with folks. People are asking what my intentions are. I'll let you know as soon as I'm ready to announce a decision one way or the other," Gillespie said before ending the call.

The New York Times first reported Thursday evening that Gillespie was telling Republicans that he had decided to run

The longtime GOP strategist and top advisor to former President George W. Bush brings a number of assets to the race, though Republicans acknowledge he's the underdog against the popular Warner.

Gillespie is telegenic and folksy, has long ties to Virginia races, and will likely 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. 

He also has long been a proponent of comprehensive immigration reform, a stance which could help him woo suburban voters and the state's fast-growing Hispanic population — though it might hurt him with the GOP base.

Republicans admit Warner will be very difficult to beat, though they believe Gillespie gives them a much better chance than they had thought they would have; President Obama's numbers are weak in the swing state.

Gillespie's deep Beltway connections could hurt his ability to contrast himself with Warner, a former governor who remains popular in the state.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee wasted no time in ripping Gillespie.

"Virginians don’t want to elect a DC shadow lobbyist like Ed Gillespie who epitomizes the reckless and irresponsible Republican economic agenda. Gillespie won't work to strengthen Virginia's economy, cut the nation's debt or work to find common ground in Washington the way Mark Warner has done, and Virginians know that," DSCC Executive Director Guy Cecil said in a statement.

Before facing Warner, Gillespie will have to secure the GOP nomination at a June party convention and could face resistance from some of the movement conservatives who often dominate the state's GOP conventions, though the two Republicans currently in the race are little-known and lightly funded.