Bucking the Odds

Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore’s announcement this afternoon that he will seek the Republican nomination for Senate to run against another former governor has been expected for some time. The common wisdom is that he will face an all but impossible task if he really hopes to beat former Gov. Mark Warner (D).

He will, after all, be running in a year that most inside-the-Beltway observers expect to be a strongly Democratic year at all levels, and the interim signs in Virginia itself aren’t all that promising. Warner left office with a high approval rating and was, until deciding he wanted to move across the Potomac as a senator, considered a possible Democratic vice presidential nominee. Moreover, Virginia these days is widely believed to be changing color rather rapidly, from red to purple, and perhaps to blue by the fall of 2008.

Northern Virginia Rep. Tom Davis (R) bowed out of the race once he saw Warner’s head-to-head poll numbers and denounced his fellow Republicans on his way out because he firmly believes the Virginia GOP has to move quickly to the left to win in Northern Virginia and, hence, statewide. Gilmore is just too conservative and hard-headed to move in that direction, but is willing to make the race that others view as hopeless.

The fact is that Gilmore has never been one to accept the common wisdom and has often bucked the odds successfully. When he ran for governor, he was considered somewhat lackluster by those who are supposed to know these things, and it was assumed he’d lose. But he latched onto the tax issue, realizing that his fellow Virginians had come to hate the so-called car tax, and wouldn’t let go. He won and before he was through managed to maneuver Republicans into control of both houses of the state legislature.

He’s a principled conservative with real credentials. The strategic question Virginia Republicans have to contend with is whether from a pragmatic standpoint a steadfast conservative like Gilmore has a better chance statewide than the sort of candidate Tom Davis and some in the business community might favor. In the recent legislative elections, the Republicans lost control of the Senate and a few House of Delegates seats, but most of the supposedly “too conservative” incumbents won, even in Northern Virginia, while their more moderate colleagues found themselves in real trouble.

These results apparently encouraged rather than discouraged Gilmore, who seems willing to bet both that the common wisdom may be wrong again this time; that if Virginia is moving left, it may not be moving quite as fast as some believe; and that by hard work and with a conservative message he can find an opening that will allow him to compete, even against Mark Warner.

He may or may not be right, but Jim Gilmore is a candidate who can’t be dismissed lightly. He’s slain dragons before and might just do it again. The real question is whether he can establish enough credibility at the outset to raise the money he’ll need to keep his detractors from killing his campaign while it’s still in its cradle.