In the Colosseum

An Old Name in the Old Dominion

Can Ed Gillespie turn Virginia red again? 

By From the April 2014 issue

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When Dr. Benjamin Rush described John Adams and Thomas Jefferson as “the North and South poles of the American Revolution,” he was drawing attention to the cultural gap between Adams’s fastidious New England and Jefferson’s romantic Virginia.

Over time, this gap has been partially bridged. The south pole has tugged in millions of northerners, thanks to the black hole of Washington, D.C., leaving Virginia among the most culturally divided states in the nation. Electoral maps reveal a largely red state wearing a cerulean skullcap: the outskirts of Washington, of course. But the density of liberal voters in the growing suburbs and exurbs has been enough to cause a political shift that’s pushed Democrats into all of Virginia’s statewide elected offices and turned this former Republican stronghold into a presidential toss-up. 

All this makes Ed Gillespie’s Senate candidacy seem well timed. Gillespie lives in Northern Virginia and, like most Northern Virginians, isn’t a native of the state. He grew up in New Jersey, attended college in Washington, and worked in Republican politics for three decades. His first campaign office is opening in Lorton, just south of the Beltway. When we meet to talk, it’s at a preserved house in Old Town Alexandria, once a key slaving port, now a yuppie playground.

Conservatives need a candidate who will take their principles “to every community in Virginia,” Gillespie tells me. And for him, that begins in Arlington, and Falls Church, and Tyson’s Corner—enemy territory, perhaps, but captured by a Republican governor, Bob McDonnell, as recently as 2009. If Gillespie can make inroads among his fellow suburbanites, it might just be enough to win a Senate race.

Gillespie’s opponent is Senator Mark Warner, the state’s former governor and keynote speaker at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. Reporters’ stock descriptions of Warner range from “very popular” to “mind-bogglingly popular,” but that’s not technically true anymore. Warner enjoyed astronomically high approval ratings as governor and polled at 57 percent as recently as last September. But a Roanoke College survey taken in January found that Warner’s approval rating had plummeted to 47 percent—the same fraction of Virginians who like the job President Obama is doing.

“It’s not an easily winnable race, but it’s a very winnable race,” Gillespie tells me. While Roanoke College has Gillespie losing to Warner by 29 points, 75 percent of Virginians said they don’t know enough about him to have an opinion. “How seriously should we take Ed Gillespie?” asked political analyst Sean Trende in January. The answer is: very seriously. Republicans may have found a unique confluence of political currents—a candidate based in contentious Northern Virginia, gathering anti-incumbent sentiment, and a senator tied to an unpopular president with crashing approval numbers.

Warner’s popularity is weighed down by Obamacare, such a burdensome political anvil that it nearly sank now-Governor Terry McAuliffe in the twilight days of Virginia’s 2013 campaign. This isn’t lost on Gillespie; when I ask him how he would cut spending, he immediately veers into the health care law. “We’ve now seen the cost estimates, which have at least doubled if not tripled since the bill was first passed, and I’m sure that’s only the beginning,” he says. He promises to help repeal Obamacare and replace it with something that won’t explode the national debt.

Gillespie is quick to note that his opponent not only voted for Obamacare, but helped whip his fellow freshman Democrats into supporting it. It’s a symptom of something curious about Warner: Whereas Warner’s former Democratic colleague, Senator Jim Webb, would have hurled himself off the jetty at Virginia Beach to divert attention from a controversial vote, Warner has been upfront about supporting liberal causes. He was one of only a handful of advocates for cap-and-trade legislation in the Senate. He voted for the stimulus and against stopping the EPA from regulating carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

Warner’s aggressive environmentalism clearly presents an opening for Gillespie, especially in the state’s southwest—coal-country. “Mark Warner stood next to Barbara Boxer and John Kerry to unveil cap and trade policies that would decimate the coal sector in southwest Virginia. Just decimate it,” Gillespie says. It’s a good line, but there’s authenticity behind it. According to reporter Peter Baker, when several quivering Bush administration advisors were preparing to sign on to cap-and-trade legislation, it was Gillespie, then an aide to the president, who squelched the idea.

Today Gillespie presents himself as squarely in the conservative mainstream: comfortable with the movement’s libertarian turn, in favor of cutting spending and a balanced budget amendment, curious about pro-privacy reforms like allowing adversarial public advocates in the NSA-authorizing FISA courtroom. But a message of belt-tightening is a hard sell in Virginia, which receives the second-most federal money of any state and is home to the largest number of military contractors in the country. Gillespie searches for a middle ground here, saying there’s waste at the Pentagon that should be rooted out, but condemning the Obama administration’s recently announced downsizing of the military. It’s not quite a punt, but it does speak to the difficulties of libertarianism in a state where legislators are expected to bring home the bacon, and lots of it.

Even if Gillespie spends the rest of the campaign swinging for fiscal conservatism, Tea Partiers are likely to approach him with caution. He spent most of the aughts in the castle keep of establishment politics, first on the Bush 2000 campaign, then as chairman of the Republican National Committee, then in the White House. Will conservatives, contemptuous of Washington and wary of anything Bush, get behind someone like Gillespie?

“There were clearly times when we had control as Republicans of the House, the Senate, and the White House when we spent too much money,” he tells me, adding that he wished President Bush had been more aggressive on the budget. As for his Washington background, Gillespie doesn’t shy away from it, talking enthusiastically about his history in politics, casually dropping terms like “Boll Weevil Democrats” and “Texas Six-Pack.” At times, the old RNC politico emerges. Riffing on his opponent’s declining support, Gillespie points out that “if you look at the last four public polls, he is at 50 percent, 51 percent, 50 percent, and 44 percent,” rattling off the numbers without breaking a sweat.

For a political consultant running for office, this seems like the most effective strategy: embrace your past, don’t pretend you’re something you’re not, and demonstrate to skeptics that an establishment career and conservative principles can co-exist. 

If there is such a thing as a meritocratic rise in Washington, then Gillespie has achieved it. His parents were Irish immigrants, he attended the Catholic University of America rather than Georgetown, and he got his start in politics as a Senate parking attendant. He later scored an internship in the office of Congressman Andy Ireland of Florida—it’s here that “Boll Weevil Democrat” comes in, meaning a southern Democrat who supported Ronald Reagan and voted with Republicans. Ireland was a Boll Weevil until he finally left the Democratic Party in 1984, bringing Gillespie with him.

“I got to grow up to be counselor to the president of the United States of America,” Gillespie says. “And that is the American dream: to go from an immigrant janitor to the West Wing of the White House working in the Oval Office in two generations time.”

And then from the White House to the TV circuit, where Gillespie frequently appeared on programs such as Meet the Press. It’s hard to imagine a talking head connecting with voters on the campaign trail; watch enough cable news and you begin wondering if political commentators are actually Disney-style animatronics, who might lapse into robotic movements and “It’s a Small World” at any time. But Gillespie doesn’t seem pinched at all; nor is he the opposite extreme, an obnoxious schmoozer like Terry McAuliffe. Instead he’s comfortable, gregarious, even a little dorky when he gets going on politics. He has a folksy charm that seems compatible with rural Virginia.

With Obamacare working against them, Democrats will almost certainly attack Gillespie on social issues, soberly explaining that he’s a rabid misogynist who wants to plunge the Old Dominion back into the early Middle Ages. Asked how he’ll respond to “war on women” accusations, leveled so effectively against gubernatorial hopeful Ken Cuccinelli last year, Gillespie brings up the damage that liberal economic policies have done to working women, and pledges not to sell the house on social issues.

“I am pro-life,” he says. “I know a lot of men and women who don’t agree with me on that issue. I respect that difference. I’m not going to abandon my principles in that regard.”

That’s a message he’ll need to broadcast loudly to Republicans and Virginians. If Gillespie can show voters that he’s not a hack or a weathervane, if he can leverage Obamacare and stand up for his beliefs without scaring off Arlington, then maybe the Old Dominion’s old Republican politics can make a comeback. 

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Matt Purple is The American Spectator's assistant managing editor.