If elected U.S. senator from Virginia this November, former GOP Chairman Ed Gillespie vows he will oppose any policies that expand welfare, federal spending and the national debt — even if proposed by a Republican president.
As Republican National Committee chairman and then as a senior White House adviser to President George W. Bush, Mr. Gillespie, 52, did not publicly oppose the explosion in federal spending that Mr. Bush’s policies helped set off.
But now taking on popular Democratic incumbent Sen. Mark Warner, Mr. Gillespie told The Washington Times that he is prepared to carve his own policy path as he makes his first bid for office.
“This is the first time I’ll be advocating Ed Gillespie’s policies, what I believe, the things that I want to do as an elected official if I were in office,” he said in an interview Friday, where he touched on a variety of topics, including the economy, immigration and his opposition to same-sex marriage.
Asked what would happen if he were in the Senate and a Republican president embarked on another spending spree, Mr. Gillespie made clear his own position.
“I’m not in favor of higher taxes, more debt, more spending,” he said.
Reminded that almost every Republican ever elected has uttered the same allegiance, Mr. Gillespie said, “Yes but I’ll stand up for those principles.”
When pushed as to whether that means he would go against a Republican president, he answered, “Yes, absolutely.”
The consummate GOP operative and loyalist, Mr. Gillespie faces a daunting task: Mr. Warner holds a 20 percentage point lead in the polls in a purple state where seven out of 10 voters have never heard of Mr. Gillespie.
His political resume is impressive, but he knows he has spent the first half of his life dancing to the tunes of various bosses, doing their bidding, pushing their agendas and helping win elections for Republicans with wide-ranging philosophies.
He said he is proud that he used to zip through the White House gates as counselor to Mr. Bush, who wound up highly unpopular among many conservatives but who also was, nonetheless, the chief “decider” in his administration.
Mr. Gillespie, seated in his campaign office on the second floor of an Old Town Alexandria town house, declined to say directly whether he would have spoken up against Mr. Bush’s policies — on spending and foreign wars — had he been in the Senate at the time.
But he left room for Virginians to divine his beliefs while remaining loyal to the 43rd president.
… “I’m proud today to call him a friend and I think that history’s going to be good to President Bush,” he said. “But, I’m running, again, on my policies and what I believe. And I look forward to putting that out to the voters of Virginia and to talking to my fellow Republicans in Virginia about that. I’m a little old school, Ralph, as I think you know. I don’t believe that it’s appropriate for someone who served as an aide to then go out and say, ‘Boy, you know, I wasn’t in on that.’ That’s not who I am. I think loyalty is important.”
Linking Warner to Obama
Mr. Gillespie made clear that he plans to hammer hard at Mr. Warner’s record, linking him to President Obama’s most unpopular policies.
“I think that when Virginians learn about Mark Warner’s record in the Senate, they’re going to be surprised,” he said. “He has told us all along that he will be fiscally responsible, a radical centrist. He’s voted for $7 trillion in new debt. That includes the failed stimulus package that was a trillion dollars in cost to us. He has voted for nearly $1 trillion in new taxes. He told us that he was going to be an independent voice and he’s voted 97 percent of the time since he’s been in office with President Obama.”
Republican activists and opinion leaders, of course, know Mr. Gillespie well, which could be a problem. Critics on the right, for example, say that when he was state GOP chairman, he backed transportation legislation designed to win votes in heavily Democratic Northern Virginia. Mr. Gillespie said the plan didn’t raise taxes, but the Supreme Court later concluded that it amounted to an unconstitutional increase in taxes.
Asked about the legislation, he said, “As chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, you don’t make policy. You try to keep folks focused on elections and winning elections.”
Mr. Gillespie knows the adage — current even when his janitor grandfather immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland — “Show me who you’re friends are and I’ll tell you who you are.” He said he hasn’t thought much about which other Virginia Republicans he would most identify with — be it former Gov. Jim Gilmore, who cut taxes, and just-retired Gov. Bob McDonnell, who raised them.
“I tend to be focused obviously on the current Senator of Virginia and how things would be so different had I been the Senator,” he said. “For example, I would have voted against Obamacare, and we wouldn’t have it as the law of the land today had I been Virginia’s Senator.”
Mr. Gillespie did offer support for former Republican Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, who lost the governor’s race narrowly to Democratic fundraiser Terry McAuliffe in November.
“We would be in a much better position as a Commonwealth today if Ken Cuccinelli had won. I was strongly supportive of Ken and I wish he had won.
Opposing same-sex marriage
Mr. Gillespie also weighed in on same-sex marriage, which is bubbling to the surface now that the state’s new Democratic attorney general, Mark Herring, announced last week that he no longer would defend the state’s ban on gay marriage in court.
“My faith teaches me to love people for who they are and accept them,” Mr. Gillespie said. “I am Catholic, and I do do that. My faith also teaches me that marriage is between one man and one woman. In fact in the Catholic church it’s not just a teaching, it’s a holy sacrament just like communion. I believe that as well. I believe marriage is between one man and one woman and I believe that people who don’t share that view or share my faith, that that doesn’t make them anti-Catholic or religious bigots. And I think people who do share my view, that doesn’t make us anti-gay either.”
Like just about every other Republican, Mr. Gillespie said border security must come first in addressing the immigration issue.
As to what he would do about the estimated 12 million people in the U.S. illegally, he wouldn’t say whether he would advocate deporting them over time. He replied several times that he doesn’t “believe that will happen.”
But what would he recommend to the Republican Senate conference if elected?
“I’m a week into this campaign, as you know. I’m not sure that the Republican conference is much interested in hearing what a one-week old Senate campaign has to think about this issue,” he said.
He acknowledged that Virginia voters might well be interested, but said he is developing policies deliberately by talking to researchers and voters.
“We’ve got 10 months to go in this campaign,” he said.
Virginia political observers predict that Mr. Gillespie will have a difficult time matching Mr. Warner’s campaign war chest by election time, but that doesn’t faze the Republican challenger. Virginia political observer Kyle Kondik this month moved the Virginia race from “safe Democratic” to “likely Democratic” based on Mr. Gillespie’s strength as a candidate and ability to raise funds for a serious challenge.
“I’ll be able to raise enough money to get my message out,” Mr. Gillespie said. How much is that, exactly?
“I’ll let the Democrats figure that one out,” he quipped.