Gillespie (Turned Republican) Runs in Virginia (Turning Democratic)

Photograph by Yuri Gripas/Pool via Bloomberg

U.S. President George W. Bush, left, walks with White House Counsel Ed Gillespie in Washington, D.C., in this Sept. 16, 2008 file photo.

Ed Gillespie, now an announced Republican challenger to Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, has a long record of service to alphabet-soup Republican organizations and causes.

Chairman of the Republican National Committee. Chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia. Chairman of the Republican State Leadership Committee, which works to elect party members in down-ballot races. Counselor to President George W. Bush in the White House.

The rock-ribbed Republican was actually a Democrat in early adulthood.

“As an Irish Catholic born in New Jersey the year John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as the first Catholic president of the United States, I all but had ‘Democrat’ stamped on my birth certificate,” Gillespie, 52, writes in his 2006 book, “Winning Right.”

“And yet,” he says, “I related much more to Ronald Reagan in 1984 than to Walter Mondale.”

Gillespie was then working for Rep. Andy Ireland, a Florida Democrat who switched to the Republican Party during his 1984 re-election campaign. Gillespie followed suit.

“Andy Ireland changed parties, and I changed with him, joining at twenty-two the party I would chair twenty years later,” said Gillespie, who was RNC chairman during Bush’s successful 2004 re-election campaign.

After Ireland (and Reagan) won re-election in November 1984, Gillespie wanted to be Ireland’s press secretary. He didn’t get the job.

Gillespie interviewed with two freshmen from Texas, Mac Sweeney and Dick Armey. Sweeney, a young former White House aide, seemed to have more potential than Armey, a gruff former economics professor. But Gillespie accepted Armey’s offer after he didn’t hear back from Sweeney’s office.

It turned out to be the wise move. Sweeney was unseated in 1988, while Armey became House majority leader after the 1994 elections put Republicans in charge of the House for the first time in 40 years. (Here’s a C-Span clip of Gillespie right before the 1994 elections.)

“I have thanked God ever since that they never called me back, and I ended up working for my second choice,” he wrote.

Some other fun anecdotes from Gillespie’s book: He’s a Jameson’s man who “savored a little whiskey” with his political mentor Haley Barbour on Election Night 2003, when Barbour was elected Mississippi’s governor. Gillespie is chummy with Virginia’s new Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman and a frequent sparring partner during their party chairman days.

“We’d beat the hell out of each other when we were on the clock, but got along fine after we punched out,” Gillespie wrote.

One person who doesn’t appear in Gillespie’s 2006 book: Barack Obama, at the time a rising-star senator from Illinois who hadn’t yet begun preparing his 2008 presidential campaign.

Obama carried Virginia that year, when Warner was elected to the Senate in a landslide, and again in 2012, when Democrat Tim Kaine won Virginia’s other Senate seat. And last year, along with McAuliffe, Democrats swept the state’s top three offices, the first time since 1989.

All those Democratic wins underscore Gillespie’s challenges in a state reshaped by demographic and political change.  Republicans are hoping that opposition to Obamacare and a drop-off in Democratic turnout in a midterm election year will work to Gillespie’s advantage.

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