WASHINGTON — Ed Gillespie is trying to chip away at Mark Warner’s "Main Street appeal" to Virginians.
Gillespie, the former Republican National Committee chairman, is challenging Warner for his Senate seat in the November election. Gillespie has put 40,000 miles on his car, driving to more than 700 campaign stops during the past six months, and he acknowledges this campaign is a tough one.
"We have the lowest labor force participation rate in over 35 years, and that’s why I say I worry that … the policies of President Obama and Sen. Warner are not just killing U.S. jobs, they may be destroying the American work ethic," Gillespie told the Tribune-Review in a recent interview.
Yet political strategists say that if every Democrat running for the Senate this year had Warner’s ability to connect with voters — especially white male Democrats — no one would be speculating about the party losing its majority control of the chamber.
"No one would be talking about a Republican takeover," said Steve McMahon, a Democratic strategist and founding partner of Purple Strategies in Washington.
Warner shares values held by blue-collar, white-collar and pink-collar voters, he said, and gives voice to their concerns.
"He’s a Main Street Democrat, which is why he’s gonna roll in November," McMahon said.
Gillespie is undeterred. He intends to capitalize on Virginia’s shifting demographics that made rural areas more Republican than in 2001, leaving more liberals in cities.
"I can reach out and connect with those voters who feel left behind by Obama and Warner, and have fallen behind in this economy," he said.
Both men are airing campaign ads showcasing their "average American" upbringing.
Gillespie, a New Jersey native, grew up working in his parents’ grocery store and rose from a Senate parking lot attendant to advising President George W. Bush and chairing the national party.
Warner comes from humble beginnings in Indiana. The first in his family to graduate from college, he made his fortune as co-founder of the company that became Nextel. He was Virginia’s governor from 2002 to 2006 and delivered the keynote address at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, the year he won election to the Senate.
Warner’s campaign did not make him available for an interview.
A RealClearPolitics average of recent public opinion polls shows Warner leading by 18.7 percentage points — a comfortable lead that’s in contrast to Democrat-held seats in West Virginia, South Dakota and Montana, where Republican challengers appear destined to win. If so, the GOP would need only three more Senate seats for control.
Toss-up races in Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, Louisiana and North Carolina hinge on who appeals to conservative white male Democrats who pulled away from Democratic candidates since President Lyndon Johnson, said Steve Jarding, a Democratic strategist who ran Warner’s campaign for governor.
"It starts with the premise that you have to understand your electorate — you have to know their fears and their insecurities," Jarding said. Most Democrats, he said, "write off the white males before the campaigns even start."
Many voters find Warner to be genuine, someone who never lost sight of his roots, Jarding said. "They don’t agree with him on every issue, but they trust that he has their interests at heart."
Gillespie released a recent ad chronicling his blue-collar upbringing and hitting Warner for using private planes at taxpayers’ expense. USA Today reported that Warner billed taxpayers $8,500 for travel last year at the end of a four-day swing across the commonwealth.
Mark Rozell, a George Mason University dean and public policy professor, thinks a Republican could win Virginia despite recent statewide wins by Democrats, including Gov. Terry McAuliffe last year.
"Virginia is a purple state, highly competitive for both parties," he said. "Republicans can win here; it’s just hard to beat Mark Warner."
Warner’s politicking could be a blueprint for Democrats trying to win swing states in Congress, Rozell said.
"He has done a terrific job at appealing to more traditional voters. … He has held events at NASCAR races, hired a bluegrass band, championed a moderate position on guns and positioned himself well to the right of the national Democratic Party."
Gillespie’s best chance at overtaking Warner, Rozell said, is for "a national political environment like 2010" to unfold over the next two months, "with big GOP sweeps all over and ‘safe’ Democrats unexpectedly being swept out of office."
It likely doesn’t matter that Warner isn’t popular with liberal Democrats in northern Virginia, Rozell said. "The left has nowhere to go — it’s either Warner or Gillespie."
Gillespie assembled a grassroots organization to calculate who typically votes in Virginia — especially in a year when progressive activists likely aren’t inspired to vote for Warner, who considers himself a "radical centrist."
"We have a lot of young people flocking to the campaign," Gillespie said. "And I am taking my message of economic growth and opportunity to every corner of the commonwealth and every segment of the electorate.
"I can tell you it is very well-received everywhere."
Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at [email protected]
Related Topics: Election 2014, Senate 2014, Mark Warner, Ed Gillespie, Va Sen