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.
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.
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.