In deeply divided Virginia, there’s rare bipartisan agreement — former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie is the strongest candidate the GOP could field against Sen. Mark WarnerMark WarnerClinton urged to go liberal with vice presidential pick Lawmaker bemoans tax 'buzzsaw' for on-demand economy workers Reid throws wrench into Clinton vice presidential picks MORE (D).
Even Democrats admit Republicans accomplished a coup by landing Gillespie, a former top adviser to President George W. Bush and powerhouse lobbyist. But both parties concur the popular Warner will be hard to oust.
The northern Virginia congressman, who just announced his retirement Wednesday, echoed the steady refrain of other state Democrats — it might not make a difference how good Gillespie is, because Warner is better.
“Ed could give him a spirited contest, but I think the conclusion is predetermined: Mark is going to win this race,” said Moran, who argued Warner had “crossover appeal” with independents and Republicans.
Even if the newly minted candidate isn’t favored yet in the commonwealth contest, there seems to be nothing but positives to landing Gillespie for the GOP. His candidacy at least gives Republicans a chance to contest Virginia, which many had written off months ago.
Gillespie’s entrance also forces Democrats into yet another competitive race, further expanding an already dismal map, where they’re defending many vulnerable incumbents in red states to keep Senate control. Republican strategists believe if President Obama’s numbers are bad enough in Virginia on Election Day, Warner could be vulnerable.
“There's no question Mark Warner is formidable. But if there is a silver-bullet Republican to pierce his armor, it'd be Ed Gillespie, with his message strategy and communication acumen,” said Ron Bonjean, a top Beltway GOP strategist who lives in northern Virginia.
Other Republicans also sang Gillespie’s praises, but cautioned they remained realistic about the uphill fight he faces.
“From what I know of Mr. Gillespie, I think he'll be a really strong candidate,” Rep. Robert Hurt (R-Va.) told The Hill, but admitted the incumbent would be tough to beat.
“He was a popular governor. He will be a strong candidate, no question about it,” Hurt said of Warner.
The powerhouse political player brings a deep Rolodex with him to the race, enabling him to raise huge sums and force Warner to run a real race. That will be crucial for Gillespie’s face-off with Warner, a wealthy former telecom executive who already has a massive $7.1 million war chest and could still dip into his own pockets if needed.
Warner has also honed a business-friendly reputation and has long been the most popular Virginia politician of either party. He is so well-respected around the state, other Democrats have used him in their own ads to bolster their bipartisan credentials.
“Whether it's tomorrow or 10 years from now, I'd put Mark Warner in my commercial. I want him in my commercial, Gov. Terry McAuliffe wants him in his commercial,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), also a former governor, told The Hill. “Mark is very well viewed and he's earned it. Mark started doing grassroots work in Virginia politics in the late 1980s. He knows this state very, very well.”
Coming off a historic sweep in last year’s governor’s race and other statewide offices, Democrats are even more optimistic about Warner’s chances.
“I don't think anyone stands a chance against Mark Warner,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Michael Bennet (D-Colo.).
Still, recent polling indicates Warner’s numbers have slipped a bit, dragged down by Obama’s weakening standing in the state. A November survey from GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway found Warner’s job approval rating was 58 percent with 37 percent disapproving, down from previous polling that at times has found Warner’s approval rating above 70 percent in the state.
Warner led the little-known Gillespie by 51 percent to 33 percent in the poll, but when voters were asked to choose between Warner and “a new person” for reelection, he only held a 50 percent to 45 percent lead over the unnamed candidate.
Gillespie clearly wants to be that “new person” and used his introductory video on Thursday morning announcing his campaign to highlight his family’s up-by-the-bootstraps immigrant roots that helped him rise from humble roots to the White House.
"My parents never went to college, but they’re two of the smartest people I’ve ever known. And the hardest working. They ran their own grocery store, and I grew up working in it with them," Gillespie said, surrounded by his wife and three children in their kitchen. "They insisted that I get a college education. And I helped pay for it, as a U.S. Senate parking lot attendant. Over the years, with lots of people’s help and advice, I rose from that parking lot to the West Wing, serving as counselor to the president of the United States.”
That “American Dream” story will likely be an important part of Gillespie’s message on the campaign trail, especially as he works to distance himself from the lobbyist label Democrats are all too eager to tar him with.
The overall mood from Republicans after his announcements was still highly optimistic.
“We're delighted to have Mr. Gillespie in the race in Virginia. He's a highly credible candidate who has great political skills but most importantly cares greatly about the people of the commonwealth of Virginia,” National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) told The Hill.
Gillespie will also have to win the nomination in a GOP convention, which often boosts conservatives over establishment Republicans. His two opponents appear to be weak, and conservative outside groups showed no interest in taking on Gillespie, but there’s no guarantee he’ll win the nomination. After a series of bruising intraparty squabbles last year that many establishment Republicans believe cost them a chance at the governor’s mansion, they don’t want that to happen again.
“Gillespie gives us the best shot, hands down. But he's really going to have to have a lot of things go in his favor,” said Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist who has worked on number of Virginia races.
“For him to win, he's going to have to give Virginians a reason to support him beyond ObamaCare and the president's abysmal record. And he's going to need Warner to make some mistakes on the campaign trail.”
Opposition to ObamaCare was a central part of Gillespie’s video message — “If I were a Virginia Senator, it would not be law today,” he boasted. Gillespie painted the incumbent as the 60th vote for healthcare reform and pledged to replace the law if elected.
But Warner, in his own statement, took a less political tone, again reinforcing the fear of many Republicans the Democrat’s cross-party appeal would be hard to break.
"I am asking Virginians to rehire me to keep fighting for bipartisan, common-sense solutions to create jobs, get our fiscal house in order and ensure that all Virginians have a fair shot at economic opportunity,” said Warner. "I look forward to putting my independent, bipartisan record up against whichever candidate the Republicans nominate at their convention in June."