The short answer is No. The last four polls averaged by RealClearPolitics.com show incumbent US Sen. Mark Warner (D) with 52% to 33% for Ed Gillespie, his Republican challenger. As for money, which – if there’s enough – can sometimes close the gap, it also favors Warner. At midyear, Warner had raised $9,816,000, with $8,915,000 cash-on-hand; Gillespie raised $4,111,000, with $3,112,000 on hand.
“It’s seen as very unlikely that [Gillespie] could win the Senate race,” says Larry Sabato, Director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and the state’s leading political guru. “The question is, can he keep Warner below 60%? If so, he has a future, for governor or against [US Sen.] Tim Kaine” in 2018.
Warner lost a race for the US Senate in 1996, but was elected governor of Virginia in 2001 and worked “in a bipartisan way,” his website says, with the GOP-controlled legislature. Campaigning as a moderate Democrat somewhat to the right of his national party’s liberal image, he was elected to the US Senate in 2008, where he was a member of the bi-partisan “Gang of Six” that attempted to craft comprises on divisive issues. Despite his current wealth, he was the first in his family to graduate from college. He got a law degree from Harvard, then went into business, founding Nextel and other companies.
Warner strives to maintain that bipartisan stance in his current campaign. On the list of issues on his campaign website, the first is “Virginia First,” followed by “Fiscal responsibility,” “Education,” and “Jobs and the Economy.” Under “Healthcare,” he writes, “With key bipartisan fixes and improvements, the Affordable Care Act can help deliver higher quality, more affordable healthcare to Virginians,” giving a nod to both the fans and foes of Obamacare.
Gillespie, 53, is the son of an Irish immigrant and, like Warner, the first in his family to graduate from college. He is a former chairman of the Republican National Committee as well a former chair of the Virginia GOP. He also served as counselor to President George W. Bush. He has served on the Board of Trustees of Catholic University of America.
Gillespie has not held elective office, but he is a skilled political operative in his own right and has already made a mark on the state’s politics. “He has a really unified Republican party. They’re tired of losing and have fallen in behind Gillespie. That in itself is an accomplishment,” says Sabato, noting that the state GOP “is a group that can spend hours arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.”
Gillespie’s time in Virginia’s political vineyards is serving him well. On a recent campaign visit to Hampton Roads, for example, Gillespie was accompanied by US Rep. Scott Rigell (R-VA), who publicly supported him.
Gillespie is hitting traditional conservative themes in his campaign. He advocates lowering the corporate tax rate to 25% to make US goods more competitive abroad and create more jobs here at home. He has also urged that federal regulations be subject to a cost-benefit analysis before going into effect. Closer to home, he supports placing a higher priority on defense spending, which would benefit Virginia substantially.
Scott Huch, a Republican precinct captain in Northern Virginia, says “I have to say that the enthusiasm among party regulars tends to be very high. There’s a realization that beating Mark Warner would be very tough. If anybody could do it, Gillespie could do it… He has a very professionally well-run organization.”
“In Northern Virginia,” Huch continues, “we get over pessimistic,” noting that once-Republican Fairfax County is now a Democratic stronghold. He points out that in the last governor’s race, the GOP’s Ken Cuccinelli received only 63 votes out of 975 registered voters in his precinct. Huch also notes that “We are also seeing the state party using more technology. Volunteers are getting their walk sheets on their cell phones.”
Carter Phillips, an attorney and Democratic activist in Hampton, has a different view. “I haven’t seen any evidence” that Gillespie is gaining on Warner. “It seems like [Gillespie] is running the same kind of rural campaign” that Cuccinelli ran, “ignoring urban areas.” Phillips points out that the rural counties are losing population, while the urban/suburban areas, where Democrats are stronger, are gaining.
“Everybody like Warner,” Phillips says. “I think Warner beats him by a good margin, not even remotely close.”
Sabato says, “Maybe in October, a trend wave could develop for Republicans. That’s what it would take for Gillespie. But today, nobody can find that wave.”