My colleague David Harsanyi has made the case against Ed Gillespie’s candidacy in the Old Dominion, where the longtime Republican political strategist is challenging entrenched Democratic Senator Mark Warner. He argues in part that Gillespie is a bad candidate because:
Is it his time at a high-powered K-Street lobbying firm that’s going to appeal to the soccer moms of Manassas? Rest assured, Gillespie will be spending much of his time dealing with calls to divulge and explain his client list – Enron! — followed by the kind of hyperscrutinization that, if the world was a fairer place, would have sunk a shyster like Terry McAuliffe before he even got started.
Except here’s the thing: it didn’t sink Terry McAuliffe, and it never did! Ken Cuccinelli and his Republican allies in the state hammered McAuliffe on his shady business deals, insider cronyism, DC-focused experience, lack of knowledge about the state, and his years of apologia for the Clinton clan… and none of it worked. Because not enough people here care about that.
Why not? Because Virginia is a state with an economy largely insulated from the vagaries of the ups and downs of the Obama economy. Here the population is split between the entitled bureaucrats, their corporatist allies, and the military-industrial complex, with the downtrodden south-siders unable to make a dent. The era of the Byrd Democrats is long past. The Commonwealth of Virginia which once required Democrats with statewide aspirations to at least pretend to be pro-Jesus, pro-life, pro-gun, pro-death penalty, and pro-NASCAR is no more, and the population now doesn’t even require you to be anti-tax – they just want to protect their pork and build more roads (heck, even the self-styled libertarian wanted to expand Medicaid!). So while David might not like it, I’m convinced Terry McAuliffe is the governor Virginia wants: an insider deal-making corporatist Democrat who works well with Washington and trades favors better than anybody.
What does this say about the Gillespie-Warner contest? Well, politics doesn’t allow us to pick among ideals, and Gillespie’s probably the only guy in Virginia who could make this a race. Warner is a popular and well-liked politician with his thumb on the pulse of the Old Dominion. Like Gillespie, he’s a guy who relocated to D.C. to chase political ambitions (Warner for Chris Dodd, Gillespie for Dick Armey). Both were chairmen of the state party for a few years, and both ran successful gubernatorial campaigns for other candidates (Wilder and McDonnell). Warner made himself incredibly wealthy by using information he gathered about telecom companies and mobile phone franchise licenses, which offered a golden opportunity for arbitrage – exactly the sort of political information leveraging that sustains Northern Virginia’s Panem Capitol City lifestyle.
Gillespie’s net worth, after his round-robin of garden variety political consulting, is about a tenth of Warner’s – and at least he did something to earn it. This difference could be one reason Gillespie has taken longer to get the political itch to run himself – Warner’s initial attempt to buy a Senate seat in 1996 fell flat, with him losing Northern Virginia to Republican John Warner before recrafting himself as a moderate Democrat and winning the governorship three years later.
I approve of the idea of a Gillespie candidacy for a couple of reasons. For years Virginia Republicans were told that their candidates needed to be more centrist and Northern Virginia friendly candidates in order to win. This is a great opportunity for the Republican establishment to put their money where their mouth is. Cuccinelli made the race last year far closer than expected thanks to Obamacare’s failures, with little help from national groups who wrote him off or worked against his brand of populist politics. Gillespie’s a business-friendly guy who, like McAuliffe, is a skilled fundraiser – so let the establishment and the business community spend their own money proving their thesis right.
There’s another reason, though: while he comes from the DC school of thought, there’s no question Gillespie is to the right of the other potential business and establishment-backed candidates who could conceivably run statewide and provide Warner with a challenge – he’s no Tom Davis, he’s no Jim Gilmore, and he’s certainly no Bill Bolling. In terms of his record of positioning, he’s not that much ideologically different than Virginia’s Bob McDonnell, who he worked for in 2009 (in fact, on fiscal matters, he may be to McDonnell’s right).
You always want the best limited government candidate to win, but you have to be realistic about what the Commonwealth has become. It probably takes an insider Northern Virginia-friendly fundraising guru to beat Mark Warner in this purple-turning-blue state. And if you’re going to run an insider, you might as well run one who can self-fund, who’s politically savvy, and who at least opposed the auto bailout.