With votes left to be counted — and possibly recounted — in Virginia, Republican Ed Gillespie’s strong showing has established the longtime political operative as a contender for governor in 2017 if his bid to upset Sen. Mark R. Warner ultimately falls short.
Mr. Gillespie said Wednesday he owes it to the voters of Virginia to let the canvassing process play out in a race separated by less than a percentage point, but others are already looking to the next election if the results hold.
“Think of the ‘better-than-expected’ status that’s applied to political campaigns,” said Mark J. Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University. “It builds his status in the party substantially. I would certainly consider him a leading candidate for statewide office in Virginia down the road if he is so interested.”
Mr. Gillespie has repeatedly said on the campaign trail that he was running to win this year — not set himself up for any possible future run — and betrayed nothing about his future intentions in Wednesday’s statement with the race still too close to call.
With nearly all precincts reporting, Mr. Warner had about a 15,000-vote lead out of more than 2.1 million votes cast — within the margin of 1 percent that would entitle Mr. Gillespie to ask for a recount.
“Now we owe it to the voters of Virginia to respect the canvassing process that is underway to get an official result,” he said. “We will be watching the results closely so that we can ensure Virginians have confidence in the accuracy of the results. It was an honor to run, and I will respect the decision reached by Virginia’s voters.”
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Though Mr. Gillespie appeared to come up short in the general election, he managed to win the GOP nomination in a convention earlier in the year with relative ease — no small feat for a former adviser to President George W. Bush in the often-unpredictable atmosphere of a convention, which attracts the most loyal and often the most conservative party enthusiasts.
“I think he’s well positioned now,” said Dan Palazzolo, a professor of political science at the University of Richmond. “Well-spoken, relatively low-key — that, to me, is probably the image of a successful Republican candidate statewide.”
Gov. Terry McAuliffe proved last year that there does exist a path for a former operative to succeed in state politics if they’re determined. Mr. McAuliffe, himself a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, lost a 2009 Democratic primary contest for governor amid charges he was a carpetbagger but continued to travel the state and won election last year.
With a number of other competitive Senate races that looked to be more winnable for the GOP, many Republican groups took a pass on chipping in money for Mr. Gillespie. He briefly went off the airwaves in October but won praise from some pundits for an ad that aired during the Washington Redskins-Dallas Cowboys game urging Mr. Warner to take a stance on a Democrat-sponsored Senate bill aimed at forcing the team to change its name, which some American Indian groups find offensive.
Growth PAC, a group founded by former Gov. James S. Gilmore III, did go up with a six-figure buy on TV and radio on behalf of Mr. Gillespie and several other Republicans late in the game, and Mr. Gilmore said he believes that help made a difference.
“I think that the Republicans did come together behind that candidacy, and that was good,” Mr. Gilmore said. “I think that it bodes well for him. He has to decide what he wants to do in the future.”
But — lest anyone get too far ahead — Mr. Gillespie is still locked in a too-close-to-call race with Mr. Warner that could be headed for a recount if the Republican so desires. And many see state Sen. Mark D. Obenshain, Harrisonburg Republican, who lost his own race for attorney general last year to Mark R. Herring after an unsuccessful recount, as next in line for the 2017 GOP gubernatorial nomination.
For Mr. Warner’s part, Marc Elias, an election lawyer with the Democrat’s campaign, said Wednesday he is “100 percent” convinced that the current margin will be sufficient to ensure Mr. Warner’s re-election.
In his victory speech Tuesday evening, Mr. Warner said the results of the election in Virginia and across the country are evidence that people are tired of “politics as usual.”
“The commitment I make to you is that I will go back to Washington and recognize that we have got to find that common ground,” he said. “I know most of us here are Democrats, but neither political party has the monopoly on truth or virtue or patriotism.”
Indeed, Mr. Warner was able to run out to double-digit leads in some public polls due to his cachet as a bipartisan problem-solver dating to his days as governor of the state from 2002-2006, and the fact that many voters simply hadn’t heard of Mr. Gillespie.
But the Republican managed to combine a focus on issues, like his plan for economic growth and a replacement for Obamacare, with a relentless attack on Mr. Warner for losing his way after he went from the governor’s mansion to the U.S. Senate.
That image took a bit of a hit late in the campaign when it came out that Mr. Warner had placed a phone call to the son of state Sen. Phillip P. Puckett in the midst of a nasty fight over the state budget that ended in Mr. Puckett’s resignation, handing control of the state Senate to Republicans.
Mr. Warner said he would not and could not have offered a job to Mr. Puckett’s daughter — who had been seeking an appointment to a judgeship — and described the call as a brainstorming session.
It’s unclear the extent to which that played into voters’ minds, but it did provide another line of attack for Republicans that Mr. Warner had to repeatedly answer.
In the end, his margins in Democratic strongholds like Fairfax County appeared to be enough to push him across the finish line in a year when Democrats across the board were hamstrung by an unpopular Mr. Obama, and Mr. Warner lost — in some cases, by large margins — in areas like southwest Virginia that he rode to victory in 2001.
In his speech, Mr. Warner also hinted he didn’t think Mr. Gillespie was done.
“I wish him, and I wish his family, well,” he said. “I know he will stay involved in Virginia and national politics.”