In 1996, a relative political unknown named Mark Warner challenged a popular Republican U.S. senator with the same last name.
Mark Warner lost that race to Sen. John W. Warner by roughly 5 percentage points — but by giving the name brand in Virginia politics a close call, he and his supporters emerged confident that he could have a future in Virginia politics.
Analysts say Ed Gillespie might now have a second act after losing Tuesday’s U.S. Senate race to Mark Warner by fewer than 17,000 votes.
Virginia’s closer-than-expected Senate contest is reverberating with consequences for Gillespie, Warner and the state’s Democratic and Republican parties.
Gillespie’s performance energized the Virginia GOP, which has lost four straight U.S. Senate races and two straight presidential elections and suffered a statewide sweep in 2013 for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.
Warner’s underperforming re-election bid in a state where he had consistently polled as the most popular politician has sparked a debate about his political pull as a potential national candidate in 2016.
It also has sent a warning shot to Democrats about the importance of motivating their base voters such as minorities and college students to turn out in nonpresidential elections.
With little financial support from outside Virginia, no experience in running for elected office and no name recognition outside the Capital Beltway, the former Republican National Committee chairman nearly knocked off a senator and former governor, whom former Rep. Thomas M. Davis III calls “the strongest elk in the herd.”
In his concession speech Friday in Springfield, Gillespie reflected on the arc of his run, which began with him down 29 percentage points and ended up with him losing by less than 1 percentage point — though he was outspent 2-to-1.
“We surprised a lot of experts Tuesday night, but you weren’t surprised at all,” he told his volunteers.
“It seems to me that we’ve seen the emergence of another Mark Warner in this election,” said Stephen J. Farnsworth, professor and director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington.
Gillespie now has “got first pick” if he chooses to seek the Republican nomination for governor in 2017 or to take on Sen. Timothy M. Kaine, D-Va., in 2018, said Davis, a Republican who represented Fairfax and Prince William counties in Congress from 1995 to 2008.
“He’s earned that right should he decide to do that,” Davis said. “I don’t think they’re slam-dunk races,” but neither is in a presidential year, which could help the Republicans because of the lower turnout, Davis said.
For more than a year, analysts and pundits around the country have suggested that Warner — the senior senator in a vital swing state — could be on the short list of potential running mates if Hillary Rodham Clinton is the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016.
Opinions are divided as to how his close call Tuesday affects his chances.
“I think the Warner brand has been hurt somewhat,” said Mark J. Rozell, acting dean and professor of public policy in the School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs at George Mason University.
“The fact that it was unexpectedly close” makes it appear “perhaps he’s not as strong in his home base as people have been thinking all along.”
Davis does not think the result hurts Warner’s chances.
“I don’t think this takes him out,” he said. “This was a huge Republican year.” The scare means “his feet are on earth; he’s no longer out of this world,” Davis said. “But he’s a survivor in a very tough year.”
Farnsworth stressed Virginia’s importance in presidential elections, but said “there’s an increasingly large bench of potential running mates” in Virginia’s Democratic Party.
“It’s by no means clear that a Democratic nominee would choose Mark Warner over Tim Kaine or Terry McAuliffe,” Farnsworth said.
Another Virginia Democrat, former Sen. Jim Webb, is considering his own bid for the party’s presidential nomination in 2016.
If Warner winds up on the Democratic ticket in 2016, or opts to run for the Senate again in 2020, he would benefit from a presidential year turnout that usually exceeds 70 percent and maximizes Democrats’ advantage in the state’s population centers.
Warner said in a statement Friday that Virginians have “sent an unmistakable message both to me and Congress as a whole: end the gridlock and get to work.”
Warner’s survival means Democrats “are still in the catbird seat” because they control every statewide office, Davis said.
McAuliffe, chairman of Clinton’s campaign for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, is poised to aid her bid in purple Virginia should she choose to run in 2016.
But before the presidential race can begin in earnest, McAuliffe has pressing concerns heading into his second legislative session in January. Like President Barack Obama, McAuliffe now confronts a Senate and a House with Republican majorities.
All 140 seats in the General Assembly — House and Senate — are up for election in 2015.
Republicans continue to hold eight of the 11 seats in the state’s U.S. House delegation, but that could change by 2017. A three-judge panel recently ruled that state legislators must redraw the boundaries of the 3rd District because the 2012 redistricting plan packed too many additional African-Americans into what already was a majority-minority district. Republicans in the state’s congressional delegation have appealed the decision.
Depending on the outcome with the congressional map, Democrats also could seek to alter the political landscape by filing a legal challenge to state legislative district boundaries.
The current map, drawn when Republicans controlled the legislature and executive branch, has helped the GOP maintain its better than 2-to-1 dominance in the House of Delegates.
The party and its leadership are in transition following Tuesday’s election. Pat Mullins, chairman of the state Republican Party, is stepping down. The Republican central committee will choose a new chairman who could set a new course for the party.
“You hope they’ll go away from ideology and go professional” and “try to put an inclusive coalition together,” Davis said.
Republicans privately mention a number of potential successors. They include Pat McSweeney, who served as the party’s chairman from 1992 to 1996, during part of George Allen’s term as governor; Del. Benjamin L. Cline, R-Rockbridge; and John Whitbeck, Republican chairman in the 10th Congressional District, which stretches from McLean to Winchester.
Also mentioned is former Del. Christopher B. Saxman, who is now executive director of the business advocacy organization Virginia FREE.
The new chairman will preside over a state party that has been riven in recent years by a split between its establishment wing and tea party adherents.
A divided state
Analysts in both parties say Virginia’s localities are increasingly predictable in statewide elections. Dozens of red counties are offset by patches of blue in Northern Virginia, urban areas and college towns.
A few populous localities are competitive — such as Loudoun and Prince William counties in Northern Virginia and the cities of Chesapeake and Virginia Beach in Hampton Roads.
In the Richmond area, Henrico County is trending Democratic in statewide races. Chesterfield County remains in the Republican column but by smaller margins than in past years.
Sen. A. Donald McEachin, Senate Democratic caucus chairman, said Tuesday’s election is “evidence of a political reality in which there are not a lot of votes that are going to be persuaded.”
Democrats he said, should run on the things they believe and focus on a strong get-out-the-vote effort to tap into a statistical advantage that has seen their party win the past six statewide elections.
“What you have in Virginia is not a two-party state,” Davis added. “You have really two one-party states that come together every four years to elect a governor and (to elect) the senators when they’re up.”