Uphill climb

Warner has fundraising advantage over Gillespie

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Ed Gillespie (left) is challenging Mark Warner.
AP Photo/Richmond Times-Dispatch, Bob Brown

Ed Gillespie has a steep climb ahead. Not only is he taking on a popular Democratic incumbent in first-term Sen. Mark Warner, but he’s doing so before voters who lately have given Democrats every top office in the state and twice backed President Barack Obama.

Plus, Gillespie — a veteran GOP political consultant making his first run for office — has to overcome Warner’s massive advantage in name recognition. Warner has also held the lead in fundraising, though the final totals won’t be known until after Election Day.

Still, Warner has his own hurdles. Obama’s approval ratings are down in Virginia and everywhere else, which will likely cut into Warner’s support. There’s also the big question: which party will control the Senate after Nov. 4?

So far GOP strategists have been putting their focus on other races in their drive to retake the Senate, but if beating Warner becomes important to the GOP’s hopes of taking over, expect a lot of attention and money to pour into Virginia in the final weeks of the campaign.

Warner has had a double-digit lead in the polls for months. An early September poll by Christopher Newport University showed him leading Gillespie by 22 points. Nonetheless, another poll late in the month by Quinnipiac University gave Warner only a nine-point lead, 48-39 percent. 

"This is a very winnable race,” Gillespie says. A midterm election like this one favors the GOP, which often fares better because voter turnout is lower and the electorate has a higher share of older, affluent white voters, who tend to support Republicans.

Gillespie has campaigned on the economy and is trying to harness any voter anxiety about wages, jobs and health-care costs. He wants to get rid of the Affordable Care Act, eliminate federal regulations that he says hurt businesses, and expand oil and gas production, which would include allowing offshore drilling.

He supports a balanced budget amendment and would seek a seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee so he could advocate for expanding defense spending, which is important for Virginia’s economy. “We do need to make a higher priority of defense spending because it’s in our national interest,” he says. “When we’re slashing … our military [budget] and spending more on the Affordable Care Act and other spending programs, I think our priorities are out of whack.”

Gillespie says Warner talks about his bipartisan efforts but is in near lockstep with Obama. Giving the GOP control of the Senate “will have a positive impact,” Gillespie says. “It will mean that Republicans will get control of the Senate for the last two years of this presidency, and I think that means a lot.”

Running against the president makes sense for Gillespie’s campaign, says Stephen Farnsworth, political science professor at the University of Mary Washington. “They would much rather be running against Barack Obama,” he says. But instead, they are running against Warner, a skilled campaigner who is well funded. “It’s very hard to beat an incumbent,” he says.

Warner, meanwhile, is touting what issues he’s taken on in his first term and what he’s trying to do now, such as improving care for military veterans and easing the burden of student loans. On the campaign trail, Warner says, “I hear more about student debt than I do about Obamacare.” He favors immigration reform. “In the business world, it’s all about access to talent and capital,” he says.

He thinks the current GOP has grown too extreme and lost its pro-business credentials. When it comes to governing, Warner says he won’t point fingers. “There’s enormous frustration with the lack of productive activities out of Washington,” he says. “I’m going to be … part of the solution rather than part of the problem.”

One big unknown is what effect the candidacy of Libertarian-leaning Robert Sarvis will have. Sarvis ran for governor last November, receiving 6.5 percent of the vote, a significant showing in a race that Terry McAuliffe won by just 2.5 percentage points over GOP nominee Ken Cuccinelli.

Could he do that again? Probably not, says Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. He thinks some of Sarvis’ support came from voter dissatisfaction with the two major-party candidates. Plus, voters may come to see Sarvis as the perennial candidate, always running for office.

Sarvis says his candidacy gives voters a choice. “Sending another Republican or Democrat back to Washington isn’t going to change a thing,” he says. “It’s time to try something different.” He supports cutting federal taxes and regulations and limiting the reach and influence of government. “You have a choice between a government that’s not governing in the public interest and a government that is serving the people,” he says.

Sarvis lacks the money to compete with his opponents, though. And observers say that while Gillespie might raise millions, he would need a lot of cash to overcome Warner’s advantages. “What Gillespie’s campaign has to do is convince people that the Warner they’ve known for a decade and really liked is not the Warner they’ve elected,” Kidd says. “That’s really hard to do, and Warner has plenty of money to remind people of why they like him.”

Gillespie could get a financial boost, though, if GOP donors nationwide think the Virginia race is winnable and could help give Republicans control of the Senate. “If the polls show this thing tightening up he may get some money,” says Harry Wilson, director of the Institute for Policy and Opinion Research at Roanoke College. Even with a lot of outside funding, Warner would still be tough to beat. Gillespie “has an awful lot of work to do,” he says. 

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