RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — In the final stretch of Elizabeth Dole’s successful 2002 Senate race in North Carolina, Ed Gillespie would get up every night at 2 a.m. to check on his candidate’s polling numbers. If the numbers were good, Gillespie, who was helping Dole’s campaign, would go back to sleep. If they were bad, he’d toss and turn all night.
At one point, Gillespie wrote in his 2006 book “Winning Right,” Dole kicked him off the campaign bus after a tightly wound Gillespie slammed a broken cell phone down on a tabletop.
But now that the seasoned GOP political operative and former White House adviser is himself a candidate in Virginia’s Senate race, Gillespie said he leaves the late night stressing to others.
“I made a decision from the outset that I was going to run as who I am on the things I believe in, give the voters of Virginia a clear choice of direction, and enjoy it,” Gillespie said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I sleep like a baby.”
But if he wanted to, Gillespie could find plenty to fret over in his underdog bid to unseat incumbent Sen. Mark Warner, a popular former governor seeking a second term. Like Warner and Democratic Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Gillespie is trying to transition from political operative to politician. But also like Warner and McAuliffe, who both lost their inaugural statewide races, Gillespie may not find success the first time around.
Polls have consistently shown Warner with comfortable leads, though recent polls show closer margins than a few months ago, and most pundit prognosticators are predicting that Virginia stays blue with relative ease.
Warner has also outpaced Gillespie in fundraising and has a 4-to-1 banked cash advantage going into the last weeks of the campaign, a slight surprise considering Gillespie’s past as chairman of the Republican National Committee and his ties to top GOP donors around the country.
A limited cash flow forced Gillespie to cancel most TV ads three weeks out from the election, though his campaign began a new statewide TV ad buy on Saturday. The new ad focuses on recent disclosures that Warner privately discussed potential job possibilities — including a federal judgeship — for the daughter of a former Democratic state senator whose resignation is being investigated by the FBI. Warner had denied any wrongdoing and no one involved has been charged with any crimes.
Warner won’t lack for resources to respond. Gillespie reported having about $2 million cash on hand for the final weeks of the campaign compared to Warner’s $8 million.
Making things harder for Gillespie is the fact that he’s had virtually no help so far from the outside groups that are spending millions in a handful of tight races around the country that could determine partisan control of the Senate.
But Gillespie said he’s maintained a sunny attitude about the race because of what he’s seen by racking up more than 53,000 miles in the last nine months on the campaign trail. He said he can feel that the momentum building on his side in a late-breaking state and said the media and pundits are missing what’s really driving the race: a sour economy that Gillespie said has been caused by President Barack Obama’s energy, health care and tax policies — and Warner’s support for them.
“Talk to people who are having a hard time filling their gas tank because the price of a gallon of gas is double what it was when Mark Warner took office,” said Gillespie. “This economy has been great for the top 1 percent, it’s been awful for people on hourly wages.”
The Warner campaign and its supporters have scoffed at Gillespie populist rhetoric, and spent millions reminding voters of Gillespie’s career as a Washington insider, including as a former lobbyist for the failed energy giant Enron.
Gillespie ran the RNC during President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election bid and then later moved into a second-floor West Wing corner office with views of the Rose Garden. He was a key adviser to Mitt Romney’s failed 2012 presidential bid.
And though not as wealthy as Warner, a former cell phone pioneer who is one of the richest members of Congress, Gillespie made a fortune lobbying and consulting for some of the country’s biggest corporations, including tobacco, energy, finance and other blue chip companies.
That past was an issue during Gillespie’s GOP nomination battle earlier this year against a tea party candidate, and Gillespie continues to face an enthusiasm gap within in his own party.
“He hasn’t motivated the tea party and the grassroots,” said Waverly Woods, chair of the Hampton Roads Tea Party, “but they are completely voting for him.”