Republican Ed Gillespie’s near-defeat of Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerAdvocates call on top Democrats for 0B in housing investments Democrats draw red lines in spending fight Manchin puts foot down on key climate provision in spending bill MORE (D-Va.) on election night turned many heads just one year after the GOP suffered historic losses at the state level.
If late money had flowed into the state to help Gillespie, who may have quietly been running one of the best races in the country, the outcome might have been different.
“It has to create a little bit of optimism among Republicans, because nobody expected it to be that close,” said Quentin Kidd, a Christopher Newport University professor and pollster.
But even with the almost-upset, Virginia Republicans shouldn’t be rejoicing too quickly. There are deep divisions still evident in the party that threaten its ability to win future races in a state that’s changed dramatically over the past decade.
Gillespie, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, was a very different candidate and ran a very different race than former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli did in his failed quest for the governorship last year.
Cuccinelli allies were able to hijack the state committee and force a convention, not a primary, to pick the gubernatorial nominee. That pushed then-Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling out of the race, unable to win in a setting dominated by conservative activists. The unintended consequence, however, were that controversial minister E.W. Jackson pulled out the surprise nomination for lieutenant governor. And the far-right ticket was born.
The results: Virginia Democrats went on to capture every statewide seat for the first time in 40 years. Only Republican Mark Obenshain, from a long political family in the state, came close in the contest for attorney general, a race that dragged on for a weekend in a recount before Democrat Mark Herring emerged as the winner.
With such a sour taste in their mouths, Republicans in the state never seemed overly optimistic about Gillespie’s chances, though he was no Cuccinelli. When some started taking notice of the rising race, it may have been too late.
“Gillespie is certainly conservative, but he didn’t run as a firebrand conservative. He ran as a conservative who was willing to talk” to people who may not always agree with him, said Kidd, the CNU pollster, who noted his group’s final polls showed undecided voters breaking Gillespie’s way in the closing days.
Gillespie overperformed Cuccinelli. In Fairfax County, the most populous in the state, he cut Warner’s margin to 17 points, compared to the 22 the GOP gubernatorial nominee lost by.
He did better by 6 points in the city of Alexandria and 5 points in Arlington County. In Prince William County he came within 2.5 points, compared to Cuccinelli’s 8-point loss in the bellwether county. And in Loudon County in the D.C. exurbs he actually narrowly beat out Warner, 49 percent to 48.5 percent. Now-Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) won there a year ago by 4.5 points.
But that doesn’t mask the problem Virginia Republicans still have to solve: how to close the gap even further in rapidly growing Northern Virginia, even with a state party still focused on holding statewide conventions instead of primaries.
Gillespie prevailed at a convention, yes. But he effectively pushed any real challengers out of the race beforehand, and the turnout was much lower than it was for the gubernatorial race and other constitutional offices last year.
And just one week later, an even bigger political earthquake shook the commonwealth when then-House Majority Leader Eric CantorEric Ivan CantorBottom line Virginia GOP candidates for governor gear up for convention Cantor: 'Level of craziness' in Washington has increased 'on both sides' MORE (R-Va.) was upset in his primary by little-known economics professor Dave Brat.
There were warning signs of unrest at the 7th District GOP convention earlier this year, and that Tea Party anger should have been a signal for the powerful lawmaker that all may not have been right.
Now, enthused by that unlikely victory, in Virginia House Speaker William Howell of Fredericksburg faces a primary challenge in 2015 from onetime ally Susan Stimpson, a Tea Party conservative and former chairwoman of the Stafford County Board of Supervisors who also ran for lieutenant governor in 2013. Howell’s cardinal sin seems to have been brokering a transportation deal conservatives opposed because it increased revenues.
If she is successful, expect the establishment vs. Tea Party rift in the commonwealth to only widen. And emboldened further, a more pragmatic, business-friendly statewide candidate — such as Gillespie, Obenshain, or even businessman Pete Snyder, who also ran for lieutenant governor and failed — may also be doomed in a GOP convention.
“Republicans have got to get a way to crack” Northern Virginia, former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), told me. “They have not been able to do that with the convention nominating process.”
Any successful candidate, he said, has to be competitive in Fairfax County, and with a large number of government employees and an increasing minority population, that can’t be done by running on an anti-government, anti-immigration, socially conservative platform.
Davis also cautioned that while Gillespie’s almost-victory may be inspiring to some, the cracks in the GOP’s coalition that prevent it from being truly competitive statewide have to be mended first. To test how well that is or isn’t being done, the Howell vs. Stimpson race could be a predictor of the next big races in 2017 for governor and in 2018 to take on Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Emissions heading toward pre-pandemic levels The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - What do Manchin and Sinema want? Warren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack MORE (D-Va.).
“I’d rather be a private in a winning army than a general in a losing army,” said Davis. “Right now we’ve got a lot of generals.”