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Mr. McDonnell left office in a cloud of controversy after spending much of last year dealing with the fallout from a scandal in which a wealthy campaign donor plied him and his family with more than $165,000 in gifts and loans.

Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II indicated that his next run won’t be against Mr. Warner this year after losing the governor’s race in November to Democrat Terry McAuliffe.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee on Thursday was quick to blast Mr. Gillespie as a “Washington special interest lobbyist and ultra-partisan Washington spin doctor.”

“The last thing Virginians need in Washington is a career lobbyist with a partisan history of slash-and-burn politics that divides Virginians,” Executive Director Matt Canter said.

But Virginians recently showed they are not averse to sending a longtime political rainmaker to high office when they elected Mr. McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chairman who served as a sparring partner for Mr. Gillespie during the 1990s, to the Governor’s Mansion in Richmond.

Mr. Holsworth pointed out that Mr. Warner made a name for himself in state politics by exceeding expectations in a seemingly unwinnable U.S. Senate race against Sen. John Warner in 1996 before launching his own gubernatorial run in 2001.

But he also said it will take a lot to unseat him.

“He’s up against one of the most popular political figures in Virginia,” he said. “I don’t think it’d be easy to take on Mark Warner by any means.”

In a statement Thursday, Mr. Warner defended his record and asked Virginians “to rehire me to keep fighting for bipartisan, common sense solutions to create jobs, get our fiscal house in order, and ensure that all Virginians have a fair shot at economic opportunity.”

“I look forward to putting my independent, bipartisan record up against whichever candidate the Republicans nominate at their convention in June,” he said.