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Thursday, January 16, 2014 - 4:45pm

GOP's Gillespie Injects Intrigue Into Virginia Senate Race

Updated: 11 months ago.
Republican Ed Gillespie announced Thursday that he's challenging Democratic Virginia Sen. Mark Warner in November's election. Gillespie, a senior advisor to Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race, is shown here at Romney's Election Night rally in Boston on Nov. 6, 2012.

Republican hopes of picking up the six seats needed to capture the U.S. Senate include a suddenly interesting race in Virginia.

Ed Gillespie, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and a top White House aide to President George W. Bush, announced Thursday that he'll challenge Democratic Sen. Mark Warner in Virginia.

Warner, a popular former governor who is completing his first term in the Senate, has voter approval ratings topping 60 percent, says Peter Brown of Quinnipiac.

"There are not a lot of incumbents in the country who have his job approval rating and his financial resources," says Brown.

But, Brown says, Gillespie sees an opening.

"What's really going on here is a bet by Mr. Gillespie that this will be a big Republican year, and that, in that kind of environment, Democrats who were thought to be safe aren't so safe," says Brown.

University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato says of Gillespie: "He is a heavy underdog; at the same time his is a serious candidacy. Certainly more serious than Mark Warner had ever expected to face."

Gillespie started working in national politics for the RNC almost 30 years ago while still in his early 20s. He eventually became chairman of the RNC. He built up a huge Rolodex along the way. He's worked on presidential campaigns and in the White House. The general public may know him best from his many TV appearances.

And don't overlook Gillespie's ability to raise money. He's been a highly successful lobbyist, and he joined with Republican strategist Karl Rove to create the influential Crossroads GPS superPAC.

Sabato says there'll be no surprise when it comes to message: "Gillespie's target will be Obama and Obamacare. And of course, Warner has voted with Obama the vast majority of the time and he voted for Obamacare. After all, all the Democrats did."

The Warner campaign is still hiring staff and hasn't yet started running ads or doing big campaign-related events. The incumbent will play up his credentials as a Democratic moderate. It's an image that plays well in the battleground state of Virginia

"Every piece of legislation I'm working on is bipartisan," Warner told Washington-based radio station WTOP. "I've got a Republican partner. And I spent two years, three years actually, working on trying to get a grand bargain on the budget, which I still think is the single best thing we could do to try to jump-start this economy."

And look for Democrats to hit Gillespie hard for being a lobbyist and political insider. Already, the Warner campaign has sent out email fundraising pitches showing photos of Gillespie and Rove, laughing and sharing a joke.

"You could be certain that Mark Warner has already spent a great deal of money on opposition research," says Sabato.

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