As Virginia Senate race tightens, GOP’s Gillespie confident about upsetting Warner

Republican Ed Gillespie is making a tight race out of his ambitious plan to defeat Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, slicing deep into the incumbent’s lead in the final days to re-emerge as a player in the GOP set piece to take the Senate.

By some accounts, Gillespie, a former Bush White House staffer and Republican National Committee chairman, has already done his job by forcing Democrats and their supporters to keep spending money on an expected victory, instead of on the handful of other Senate races that they desperately need to retain control of the upper chamber.

But with 10 days to go before Election Day, Gillespie, who according to a recent poll has cut the lead to single digits, feels confident about winning and is in no mood to declare a moral victory for what Washington war room strategists refer to as “expanding the playing field.”

“I’ve always said this is a winnable,” Gillespie told on Thursday, as he campaigned through the state’s voter-rich Virginia Beach-Hampton Roads region. “I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I also knew it was possible. We have incredible energy right now… We’re going to win.”

Gillespie -- a first-time candidate and high-powered lobbyist before the campaign -- entered the race trailing by at least 20 percentage points and with considerably less money, one lead he couldn’t close despite his Washington establishment connections.

Warner, a former Virginia governor and wealthy telecommunication entrepreneur before joining Congress, has consistently out-fundraised Gillespie and now has roughly $8 million in available cash, compared to roughly $2 million for Gillespie.

That disparity became apparent last week when the Gillespie campaign temporarily cancelled and reduced the amount of money it had planned to spend on TV ads.

The super PAC of former Virginia GOP Gov. Jim Gilmore jumped in with $86,000 for TV and radio ads in support of Gillespie.

But the Warner campaign meanwhile continued to bombard the airwaves with ads about Gillespie previously lobbying for Enron -- the energy conglomerate forced into bankruptcy in 2001 by an accounting scheme that also resulted to 21 people either pleading guilty or being found guilty of related crimes.

Lauren Bell, a dean and political science professor at Virginia’s Randolph-Macon College, thinks Gillespie entered the race believing he could knock off an incumbent and still does.

“I cannot image somebody of Ed Gillespie’s stature, with his credentials, would just take one for the team,” she said.

Warner has spent $4.4 million on ads, and the liberal Virginia Progress PAC has spent another $2 million.

Gillespie has spent $3.5 million on ads with a mere $260,000 more coming from outside groups, according to the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity.

Gillespie has also done most of the heavy lifting with so little outside money, which likely hurt his race but allowed Washington Republicans and pro-GOP political action committees to spend on the tight races in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana and North Carolina.

The Warner campaign could not be reached Saturday for comment.

Republicans need to win a net total of six seats to take control of the Senate and appear headed to at least win Democratic-held seats in South Dakota and West Virginia.

Bell thinks Gillespie has a shot at winning, pointing to Dave Brat's stunning Virginia GOP primary win this summer over House Minority Leader Eric Canton despite having a huge fundraising disadvantage.

“It seems unlikely that Gillespie will be able to come back,” Bell said. “But I don’t think it’s impossible… Before the Brat primary I would have said no way.”

She also argues that Gillespie could win in similar fashion to Brat, a fellow Randolph Macon professor, by entering the race with lower polls numbers but benefiting from low voter turnout, a major concern for Democrats in November.

Gillespie, like other Republican challengers this election cycle, appears to have found success in trying to tie Warner, known as a centrist, to President Obama’s agenda.

However, the race could now be even tighter, following revelations in mid-October about Warner allegedly discussing a federal judgeship for a supporter in an effort to keep her father from quitting the state Senate and giving Republicans the majority.

Bell said the allegation, largely overlooked by the national media, is a big deal among Virginia voters, though no public polls have been released since it surfaced.

“It’s a big issue,” Gillespie said. “It’s deeply troubling that Mark Warner would play politics with an appointment to a federal bench. Something happened to Mark Warner on his way to Capitol Hill.”