The ink is not yet dry on this year’s elections, with a possible recount in VA and a runoff in Louisiana and several races undeclared across the country.
But that does not stop the postmortems from coming out. The curious case of Virginia is the topic of many already this year.
Ed Gillespie, left for dead with double-digit deficits in polling before the election, nearly pulled off the upset against incumbent Sen. Warner.
This sets off several questions worthy of consideration.
This is a question with several answers.
–Warner ran a lackluster campaign. He took Gillespie lightly, not really laying a glove on him for all of the liberal kvetching over Gillespie’s Enron connections and other past resume fodder. The polls showed a strong win, so why chance raising Gillespie’s name ID the way Cantor did to Brat? Normally Warner’s strong approval rating would carry him.
–The Wave. Look at results across the country. Republicans typically polled between 3 and 9 points behind where they finished on Election Day. Even where there were bad Republican candidates (NC and Kansas were two examples), Republicans took all the late deciders as the nation delivered a message to President Obama. Even Thom Tillis, one of the worst Republican candidates of this or any cycle, overperformed to win despite being outspent 3-1. A Republican won in Maryland for governor for God’s sake! The Wave was massive and washed away and Dem in its path. Gillespie clearly benefitted from that.
–Establishment strategy. In most cycles, you actually have to tell people what you would do with the power you seek. Not this time. The Establishment strategy of keeping your head down and telling people what percentage of the time your opponent supported President Obama was effective this time because this electorate is reviled by Obama and his policies and incompetence. Gillespie ran low on substance (which is a problem when you need to govern or seek re-election), but this time it kept the focus off him and on Warner. I don’t think this strategy works in most cycles (see Cuccinelli, Ken; Allen, George; Thompson, Tommy; etc). But this time, it provided the Democrats fewer targets to hit, while allowing the natural anti-Obama environment to fill the room.
–The hard work of Republican activists all over Virginia, some of whom did not like Gillespie as the nominee but remained good Republicans and supported him anyway.
-The late bribery charges against Warner, which while they did not stick, did catch traction because of the corruption conviction of former Gov. Bob McDonnell. Virginians are tired of corruption among their political class and that weariness showed.
Overall, while lackluster, Gillespie ran a mistake-free campaign.
2. What happened on Election Day?
This is a tricky question.
Gillespie performed as a Republican needs to in most places. There was no special overperformance in Southwest Virginia; strength in Central Virginia. He won Loudoun, which McCain and Romney could not. He did not perform well in Fairfax, with only 40%; nor in Arlington or Alexandria (under 30% in each). Ideally you’d like to see a Republican with closer to 45% in Fairfax and 34% in the People’s Republic. Losing Prince William, Manassas, and Manassas Park is crushing; a Republican cannot win statewide without them. Even McCain took Manassas and MP.
The Richmond area was also a big problem. Gillespie lost Henrico by 12. Henrico used to be the center of the Marcus-Allen Republican machine; regardless of the rise of Democrat Eastern Henrico, a Republican MUST win Henrico to win statewide. Performance in Hanover is also not what you would ideally like it to be; Chesterfield was right on target however.
Hampton Roads was mildly disappointing. Chesapeake was a close win; Virginia Beach was strong but needed to be stronger, granted weakness in Henrico and elsewhere. Norfolk was disappointing. It would appear that African-American voters heard the President’s pleas to come out and save Warner’s backside.
Nelson and Caroline counties are usually good indicators of how the state goes; if they go Republican, the Republican usually wins. They went for Warner this time.
Libertarian Robert Sarvis scored 50,000 votes and 3%. Some have cursed his voters, but history has shown with Sarvis that his voters are very rarely Republican; most likely they would have stayed home. Issues like the Patriot Act, Drug War and others would have put them crossways with both Warner and Gillespie. Ultimately, a candidate’s votes are earned. If you didn’t earn them, they don’t belong to you anyway.
3. What does it all mean?
Ahh, a very tricky question.
For Warner, it means the end of his presidential aspirations. If the investigation for corruption yields an indictment, he is done- and may have to resign. His aura of invincibility is shattered. This may hurt Tim Kaine as well, who is well known for being Warner’s lap dog.
For Gillespie, tough to say. A close loss is still a loss, just ask George Allen, who lost by a closer margin than Gillespie did in 2006 and never recovered, losing again in 2012. A Republican who cannot pull it out during a cycle like this one or 2010, probably never will. It is not very frequent that you get a situation where the wind is THIS much at the Republican’s back; most cycles, a Republican will need to run a stronger campaign to win in Virginia- take more positions, raise more money.
This is not to say others could have done better, necessarily. What ifs are common in close losses but rarely useful. Write-ins were no more a factor in this election than any other (ie, their numbers were comparable to past elections). Warner is still the most popular politician in Virginia, and that is no small thing.
History has not been kind to retreads in Virginia however. George Allen lost in 2006 by less than Gillespie did; that loss was still the end of his political career. Virginia moved on without him. Jim Gilmore last won in 1997, his 2008 loss to Warner was a blowout. Bob Marshall barely lost to Jim Gilmore in the 2008 convention and has never been close in any Federal office run since. And you always run the risk of being labelled the “perennial candidate”. Fundamentally, there is never the guarantee the dynamics behind one election will be there for any others.
We in Virginia are hard on newcomers; we tend to embrace the comfortable known rather than give a new guy (or gal) a chance. The Virginia Republican bench is deep and getting deeper. 2017 and 2018 are a long way off, and the Virginia GOP is riding a 6-race statewide losing streak. We have had a number of close losses there; it’s time to open the field of ideas, stand for something (lower taxes?), and do as Margaret Thatcher advised:
“First you win the argument; THEN you win the election.”