Ed Gillespie, the longtime Republican operative preparing a Senate race in Virginia, has a lot of political axioms in his 2006 book, “Winning Right.”
One of them is, “In order to win, you have to be willing to lose.”
Gillespie, as a veteran party strategist, surely is under no illusions that he’s facing an uphill bid to unseat one-term Democrat Mark Warner, a well-regarded former governor who is well-funded. (Jonathan Martin of the New York Times reported Jan. 9 that Gillespie will announce his candidacy as soon as this week.)
Gillespie is betting that Warner won’t be as popular this November as he was in 2008, when he won 65 percent of the vote against weak opposition in near-ideal political conditions for Democrats. Republicans are also anticipating that Obama will be less popular in Virginia this November than in 2012, when he carried the state by a 51 percent to 47 percent margin that matched the nationwide popular vote breakdown.
“Mark Warner has not turned out to be the senator a lot of Virginians thought he would be,” Gillespie told Politico last month. Like many Republican candidates running this year, Gillespie would link his opponent to President Barack Obama’s health-care law and its troubled rollout.
“Gillespie’s betting that even a candidate basically genetically engineered to win elections in modern Virginia can be brought low by Obamacare,” Slate’s David Weigel wrote.
If a former Democratic National Committee chairman can get elected governor of Virginia, as Gov. Terry McAuliffe has, why shouldn’t a former Republican National Committee chairman claim a Senate seat? Gillespie also has served as chairman of the state party — and worked in President George W. Bush’s White House (just as McAuliffe’s fundraising prowess helped get President Bill Clinton elected).
Gillespie really has nothing to lose by running. Because he’s willing to take on the favored Warner, a loss wouldn’t taint Gillespie’s political standing among Virginia Republicans who had been lacking a serious Senate candidate. At a minimum, Democrats would have to take notice of a race — and perhaps spend some resources they would have otherwise sent elsewhere.
The Charlottesville, Virginia-based Center for Politics shifted its rating of the Virginia Senate race to the mildly competitive “Likely Democratic” category from the uncompetitive “Safe Democratic” category. Warner merits a strong early edge.
And look at today’s Senate, which includes some members who were clearly willing to lose, if not expecting to lose, when they began their campaigns.
Delaware Democrat Chris Coons began his 2010 campaign expecting to face Republican Rep. Mike Castle, who would have been favored against Coons. When Castle was unexpectedly felled in the primary by Christine O’Donnell, Coons was well-positioned to win in November. Indiana Democrat Joe Donnelly surely would have lost to Republican Richard Lugar in 2012, though Donnelly’s prospects improved dramatically after Lugar lost the primary to Richard Mourdock.
Gillespie’s political mentor, Haley Barbour, ran for the Senate in Mississippi in 1982, losing by 64 percent to 36 percent to Democratic incumbent John Stennis. That was actually a respectable showing for a Republican against Stennis, a legendary political figure who had always run unopposed. Barbour went on to serve as Republican National Committee chairman (a job Gillespie later held) and as Mississippi’s governor.
To be sure, the comparisons to Coons and Donnelly are limited because Warner isn’t vulnerable among Democratic activists and won’t be denied renomination. The point is that there are officeholders who took risks by running and were in a position to capitalize when political circumstances shifted in their favor. It’s too soon to say if the political environment will be anti-Democratic enough to give Gillespie a shot at pulling the big upset. But you can’t win if you don’t run.