McLean, Va. — Campaign signs line either side of the steep driveway that leads up to this modest house. Where the sidewalk meets the front porch, an American flag waves proudly, and the yard signs begin to blend in with the last of the season’s flowers and Halloween decorations. Nestled between a gangly skeleton and a crooked spider are the key words: “Ed Gillespie: For All Virginians.”
Inside, standing in the center of the tastefully decorated living room is Ed Gillespie, the longtime Republican strategist and leader, who hopes in less than two weeks to secure the governorship of Virginia. He has an air of confidence, but when he speaks to those assembled, Gillespie makes the case for his candidacy as if he were addressing a crowd of undecided voters rather than long-time supporters.
The tenor of the event was fitting for the type of candidate Gillespie is: He’s never held elected office, though he came quite close in 2014 when he fell less than one percentage point short of defeating incumbent Democratic senator Mark Warner. Even so, Gillespie has been involved in American politics for decades, getting his feet wet in the 1980s working for Andy Ireland, a Democratic congressman from Florida.
Gillespie grew up in a Democratic family, but during Ronald Reagan’s second presidential term, both he and Ireland joined the Republican party. “I liked President Reagan’s approach to governing and it just made sense to me,” Gillespie told the New York Times about his switch.
During the 2004 presidential campaign, Gillespie was often referred to as “President Bush’s pit bull” for his tenacious style in defending the incumbent Republican. “My wife says [the title] is not accurate,” Gillespie told the Times in 2004. “’I’m more of an attack puppy.”
Whatever the best term for his brand of ardent party loyalty, Gillespie has been a highly influential and successful GOP strategist and leader for over two decades. In 2005, he led the process to fill a vacant Supreme Court slot, which resulted in the nomination and confirmation of Justice Samuel Alito. Gillespie went on to serve a stint as counselor at the tail-end of the George W. Bush presidency.
When he lost to Warner in 2014 by a mere 0.8 percentage-point margin, analysts were quick to note that, had the GOP invested just a bit more in Gillespie’s campaign, it almost surely would’ve pushed him over the edge and into the Senate. Gillespie is determined not to allow a similar loss this time, despite the fact that he’s being well outspent by Democratic nominee Ralph Northam.
“I did learn a lot of things,” Gillespie tells National Review regarding the difference between his 2014 bid and this year’s. “I feel like we have a better campaign this time, and I’m a better candidate this time than I was last time, not that I was bad. But you definitely learn lessons.”
One thing he’s learned since his last go-round is not to put too much faith in polls. “They’re nonsense. Public polls are not designed to gauge the outcome of elections,” he attests. “They’re designed to affect the outcome of elections. I think Virginians are on to that now.”
Gillespie and his campaign certainly believe they’ve caught on to the flaws in public polls, a topic of much interest to political insiders since Donald Trump’s surprising victory last November. Despite the fact that his Democratic opponent — Virginia lieutenant governor Northam — has led in nearly every major poll of the race, Gillespie can often be heard calling the race a “dead heat.”
His time on the campaign trail has led him to believe that polls don’t fully reflect the views of Virginians. “I was at the shipyard at Newport News at 5:30 a.m. on Friday morning and there until 7 a.m. I talked to a lot of voters there, as well as at the Fleet Fest in Norfolk and the Poquoson Seafood Festival,” he says. “I’m campaigning everywhere in the Commonwealth, taking my message to every voter in Virginia. And I can tell by the response we’re getting that people are energized about this race.”
Gillespie’s intense event schedule appears to be paying off. Over the last couple of weeks, polls have shown the gap between him and his Democratic opponent narrowing. One survey from mid October even put the Republican in a slight lead, and a Hampton University poll from just this week had Gillespie up by an astonishing eight percentage points. The latter poll is surely an outlier, but it illustrates how fluid this race remains down to the wire.
Whether or not they trust the polls, GOP leadership would like to credit this last-minute surge in part to the substantial differences between Gillespie’s campaign style and that of Northam. For one thing, the Republican has rolled out a detailed policy proposal on nearly every issue one could imagine and maintains a second website dedicated solely to housing those plans. In contrast, Northam was dinged in September for touting a tax plan in a television ad without ever releasing the details of the plan.
And while Northam has been highly successful at maintaining the support of hard-left Democrats while still appealing to Virginia’s large swathe of moderate voters — setting aside environmental concerns to support a popular trans-Atlantic pipeline, appeasing unions, and aligning with public opinion, for example — he hasn’t avoided optical mistakes.
Gillespie noted in particular Northam’s apparent neglect of rural Virginia. “He didn’t attend a single meeting of the Center for Rural Virginia, which is the organization responsible for identifying policies to help ensure that there’s economic opportunity in rural areas,” he said. “He blew off the Buena Vista parade. It’s clear that he doesn’t have much of a focus on that.”
Gillespie also pointed out that the current gubernatorial administration — led by Governor Terry McAuliffe, with Northam as second-in-command — canceled a meeting with the Sheriffs’ Association after the non-partisan group endorsed the Republican candidate. This isn’t a good look for a Democratic party that needs to win over moderate Virginians.
Both in his remarks at campaign events and in one-on-one interviews, Gillespie makes sure to highlight his desire to protect vulnerable Virginians from crime. He came under fire from the Washington Post earlier this week for claiming that there are about 2,000 members of the violent gang MS-13 in Fairfax County alone. But the supposed fact-check found that there are at least 1,400 such gang members in the county, a number equal to the county’s police force.
In fact, Gillespie’s point is a good one: Using sanctuary cities to protect criminal illegal aliens is harmful to Virginians. “The people most affected by and most at-risk and vulnerable to violence from MS-13 gang members are in the immigrant community themselves,” he adds.
The Republican is never one to gratuitously attack his opponent, but he doesn’t shy away from highlighting their differences. “I’m not questioning what’s in his heart,” Gillespie said of Northam. “I think he cares about Virginia and that’s why he’s running, and he’s a good person. . . . But his policies are not good for us, and they won’t benefit all Virginians in the same way mine will.”
Gillespie doesn’t try to avoid the inevitable Trump question when it arises. “We’re a state that’s heavily affected by federal policy,” he acknowledged. “But as I campaign across the Commonwealth, the questions I get are about jobs, and opportunities, and making sure that our young people graduating . . . are able to stay here in Virginia and have a career path.”
He also mentioned the importance of focusing on the state’s public schools, transportation issues, congestion relief in Northern Virginia, and the opioid epidemic. “That’s what Virginia voters are focused on two weeks from this election,” he said. “And I’m putting forward plans and policies to address all those concerns.”
Likewise, he admits that voters do care about the ongoing debate over Confederate monuments, but he believes that his solution is one nearly everyone can rally around. “When you’re on the side of preserving the evil institution of slavery, you’re on the wrong side of history,” he said. “But that is our history, and I do believe we need to teach it. . . . We don’t have to glorify the objects of these statues, but I do support putting them in their historical context and keeping them up.”
A late September survey of Virginians found that a slim majority does support leaving Confederate statues in place, and that number rises when the monuments are those dedicated to fallen Confederate soldiers. Gillespie is correct that many see the monuments not as a glorification of slavery but rather as a historical marker.
In large part, Gillespie has refused to dodge the specter of the president, instead trying to deliver his message without either condemning or fully embracing Trump. Gillespie’s ability to hang in in this race — and to tighten the margin incrementally over time — is truly remarkable, especially given Trump’s poor performance in Virginia last November. Some of that success is surely attributable to his campaign’s adept balancing act of appealing to Trump voters without alienating moderates, but it also hints at his unusual playbook. In 2014, for example, Gillespie made outreach to Asian and Indian voters a key component of his campaign in Northern Virginia, and he ended up winning Loudoun County and finishing within striking distance of Warner in the equally essential Fairfax and Prince William counties.
Ed Gillespie has proven that he isn’t bound to any one model of being a successful Republican politician.
This gets at the heart of what’s different about Gillespie the candidate: He has proven that he isn’t bound to any one model of being a successful Republican politician. He’s deeply informed by his many years crafting and shepherding GOP policy from the outside, but his view of what’s best for Virginia always takes precedence over what the Washington establishment might champion.
Politicos would like us to believe that the outcome of this race will be an important marker of national sentiment one year after Trump’s astonishing presidential win. If Northam wins on November 7, we will surely be treated to endless columns and monologues about how our tweeter-in-chief has poisoned the Republican party for good.
In reality, Virginia politics are unique and much too complicated to allow us to read gubernatorial elections as a concrete roadmap to the future of our political parties. But surely public opinion of the current administration factors at least slightly into the results of a race such as this. If underdog Gillespie is able to pull off a victory, it’ll be an indication that Virginians care much more about substance than they do about the man in the White House.
– Alexandra DeSanctis is a National Review Institute William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism.