Bolling: Gillespie shows the way forward

November 8, 2014 /  BY

Richmond Times-Dispatch
By: Bill Bolling

The results of Election Day 2014 hold some important lessons for Virginia Republicans. The question is: Will the GOP learn them?

First, the bad news.

In the commonwealth’s only statewide campaign, Democrat Mark Warner was re-elected to the U.S. Senate by a narrow margin. That was his sixth straight statewide victory. In addition, Democrats have now won nine of the past 10 top-of-the-ticket statewide campaigns in Virginia.

That’s not good news for Virginia Republicans. Clearly, these facts point to the fact that Virginia, once a reliable Republican state, has turned blue in statewide campaigns.

However, even though Republicans lost the U.S. Senate campaign, there was also some good news. The race was much closer than political pundits had predicted.

Republican Ed Gillespie ran a very strong campaign and did much better than anyone expected. He came within a few thousand votes of defeating Warner, who has long been regarded as the most popular political figure in Virginia.

Gillespie is a conservative Republican, but he ran a mainstream campaign and was able to attract the support of many moderate and independent voters. That’s what you have to do to win statewide campaigns in Virginia.

Gillespie ran a campaign modeled after that of former Gov. Bob McDonnell in 2009. McDonnell, another conservative Republican, also ran a mainstream campaign and was able to reach out to a broad cross-section of Virginia voters.

McDonnell is the only Republican to win a top-of-the-ticket statewide campaign in Virginia in the past 10 years.

What enabled McDonnell to win in 2009 and Gillespie to do much better than the pundits expected in 2014? Two things.

First, they focused on the big issues facing Virginia and our country. They talked about jobs and the economy and other mainstream issues like education, health care and transportation. These are the issues the people of Virginia care about.

Second, they worked hard to avoid rigid ideologies, confrontational politics and divisive social issues. A focus on those types of issues, which drive away more moderate and independent voters, has proven to be problematic for many Republican candidates in Virginia.

Contrast the success that McDonnell and Gillespie enjoyed in 2009 and 2014 with the disastrous outcome Virginia Republicans experienced in 2013, when they nominated a ticket that was very ideologically driven and had a record of focusing on the most divisive issues of the day. In a year that should have favored Republicans, we lost all three statewide offices to Democrats.

The lesson in these election outcomes is clear. Virginia Republicans can win when they nominate mainstream conservative candidates that keep their focus on the issues Virginia voters care most about.

But to earn the trust of the more moderate and independent voters whose support is needed to win statewide political campaigns in our state, Republicans must steer clear of rigid ideologies, confrontational politics and divisive social issues.

And we cannot nominate candidates who have records that make it impossible for them to present themselves to voters as mainstream political leaders.

A close analysis of exit polls from recent statewide campaigns also makes this point.

Republicans have lost most statewide campaigns in the past decade because Democrats have done a better job of gaining the support of key demographic groups like women, younger voters and what I have come to call the changing face of Virginia — rapidly growing communities of Hispanic, Asian and Indian voters. To win statewide campaigns, Republicans must do a better job of attracting support from these key demographic groups.

These voters will support mainstream conservative candidates who keep their focus on the big issues facing our state, but they will not support candidates who they feel are too ideologically driven and too focused on the most controversial and divisive issues of the day.

McDonnell proved this in 2009 by winning an overwhelming victory as governor and, even though he lost in 2014, Gillespie proved the same point by running a much more competitive campaign than anyone expected.

Gillespie may have lost, but his campaign shows Republicans the way forward.

Bill Bolling is chairman of the Virginia Mainstream Project, which is dedicated to promoting a more mainstream approach to politics and governing in Virginia. He is the former lieutenant governor of Virginia.

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