Former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie announced that he will challenge Sen. Mark R. Warner, Virginia Democrat, in the November election, banking that a national mood soured on President Obama and his agenda will be enough to overcome the popular, well-funded incumbent in an important swing state.
Mr. Gillespie laid out the theme for his Senate bid in a video announcement Thursday that said he is running because the “American dream is being undermined by policies that move us away from constitutional principles of limited government and personal liberty.”
Virginia Republicans, hungry for a victory after being shut out of the top three statewide offices for the first time in more than two decades, are mobilizing quickly to target Mr. Warner, a first-term incumbent. But the former governor routinely polls as the most popular statewide politician and has at his disposal a vast personal fortune and a sizable campaign war chest of more than $7 million.
“They know it’s an uphill climb, but it’s an opportunity,” said Bob Holsworth, a former professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and a longtime observer of state politics. “They think if there’s a Republican wave this year, Gillespie can catch it.”
The GOP hopes to exploit the fact that Mr. Warner, who characterizes himself as a politically moderate independent voice in the Senate, has consistently voted with the Democratic leadership on issues such as changes to the chamber’s filibuster rules and federal health care reform.
But Mr. Warner, a self-described radical centrist, also has bucked his party, notably expressing an openness for changes in entitlement programs to tackle the country’s debt and deficit.
He voted in April for a compromise to increase background checks for gun purchases but broke with most of his caucus and voted against proposed bans on military-style, semi-automatic rifles and high-capacity magazines.
Mr. Gillespie brings his own baggage to the race, having worked as a high-powered Washington lobbyist and having close ties with the Newt Gingrich and George W. Bush brands that are anything but rehabilitated in the Old Dominion.
Originally from New Jersey, Mr. Gillespie attended Catholic University and has lived in Fairfax County with his wife and three children for more than 20 years.
He was instrumental in drafting the Contract with America that presaged Republicans’ historic takeover of the House of Representatives in the 1994 elections.
More recently, he was chairman of Bob McDonnell’s successful 2009 campaign for governor and served as chairman of the state Republican Party and the Republican National Committee. He was also an adviser to Mr. Bush during the final 18 months of his presidential term.
“If you believe party elites and Washington insiders like Karl Rove know what’s best for you, vote for Gillespie,” said Howie Lind, another challenger for the GOP nomination.
Mr. Gillespie must win the party’s nomination at a June 7 convention in Roanoke if he is to contend with Mr. Warner. He will come armed with a lengthy list of contacts from his days in Washington and a dearth of challengers from what has become a thin Republican bench in recent years.