Utterly conventional: Virginia Republicans bet big on boring with Gillespie

Ed Gillespie may be GOP strategists’ dream, but can he charm the Tea Party? Photo: Nancy Kaszerman/ZUMAPRESS Ed Gillespie may be GOP strategists’ dream, but can he charm the Tea Party? Photo: Nancy Kaszerman/ZUMAPRESS

Odd Dominion is an unabashedly liberal, bi-monthly op-ed column covering Virginia politics.

In case you slept through it, the Republican Party of Virginia held a nominating convention last weekend, which ended—as widely expected—with the coronation of New Jersey native Ed Gillespie, a former lobbyist and longtime Republican political strategist, as the GOP standard bearer to take on Democratic Senator Mark Warner in the Fall.

This was considered a big win for the establishment wing of the Republican party, and it’s not hard to see why. After last year’s debacle, which resulted in the nomination of whack-job trifecta Ken Cuccinelli (Governor), Mark Obenshain (Attorney General) and E.W. “Yoga is a Tool of Satan” Jackson (Lt. Governor), GOP strategists who actually care about winning elections were desperate for a non-lunatic Senate candidate.

In Ed Gillespie, they got their dream nominee: a prodigious fundraiser and consummate party insider who has spent decades behind the scenes helping to get other Republicans elected. The problem is that, outside of his fellow insiders, nobody seems to really know or like Gillespie all that much. Complicating matters further is the fact that, due to his years of service to everyone from Newt Gingrich to George W. Bush, Gillespie’s resumé contains a long list of unsavory items which are ripe for exploitation by his political foes. As Shak Hill, the Burke-based insurance agent who challenged Gillespie for the nomination, sniped in his convention speech, “When you lobby for big bank bailouts, there is no separation between you and Mark Warner.”

Still, there’s little doubt that Gillespie is the best hope the Republicans have of beating Warner, who is still widely liked and flush with campaign cash. In the GOP’s best-case scenario, a widespread backlash against the Affordable Care Act, coupled with general dislike of President Obama, will fuel a wave election that will sweep even moderate, well-respected Congress-critters like Mark Warner from office.

The problem with this scenario is that, even as it trumpets the success of marginally more moderate candidates, Virginia’s Republican Party is still largely defined by its most extreme members, like Del. Bob Marshall—who continues to agitate loudly for the impeachment of current AG Mark Herring over his support of “sodomy marriage”—and state Sen. Richard Black, who recently sent a letter to despotic Syrian President Bashar Assad expressing deep gratitude for “the skill and valor displayed by Syrian troops.”

These loons are not outliers in Virginia’s Republican delegation, but members in good standing. In fact, a simple stroll through this year’s RPV convention—which prominently featured items like toilet tissue printed with President Obama’s face and heroic photos of Confederate generals—showed that the conservative heart of Virginia’s GOP still yearns for extremists like Ken Cuccinelli and E.W. Jackson (both of whom were received rapturously by the crowd), not “electable” career strategists like Gillespie.

Which is why, even though he seems to be doing everything in his power to appease the Tea Party (such as whole-heartedly embracing gun rights and insisting that life “begins at conception and ends at natural death” during his convention speech), we are comfortable predicting that Gillespie is going to lose to Warner by a wide margin. He is a bland, corporate candidate trying to excite a party that craves red meat and anti-science extremism. 

Here’s our prediction: By attempting to thread the needle and attract both conservative Republicans and moderate Democrats, he will end up wooing neither, and will soon be back sitting on his piles of consulting cash and wondering what happened faster than you can say “sodomy marriage.”