By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
ROANOKE, Va. — Republicans exited their U.S. Senate nominating convention far more unified than they did a year ago.
The inside party bickering all but ceased when Ed Gillespie’s chief opponent, Shak Hill, conceded defeat and pledged his support in the campaign to unseat incumbent Democrat U.S. Sen. Mark Warner.
“Gillespie has a foot in both camps — the establishment and the tea party movement,” GOP strategist and Gillespie supporter Ali Akbar told Watchdog.
The former Republican National Committee chairman was the last to engineer a GOP sweep of the White House, Senate and House of Representatives, and he maintains access to deep party pockets.
If Gillespie can bridge the gap between establishment Republicans and the party’s populist wing, he could fare better than Ken Cuccinelli & Co. did in 2013.
Gillespie hit most of the right notes Saturday.
Blasting what he called “Obama-Reid-Warner policies,” the GOP nominee said Democrats have “destroyed the work ethic” and produced a “mediocre economy that we are told is the new normal.”
Pledging to vote down tax hikes and to curb abortion, Gillespie aimed for fiscal and social conservatives. He stoked the Civic Center crowd with a vow to “stand up for our coal miners.”
In the afterglow of victory, challenges lay ahead.
Conservative guru and direct-mail pioneer Richard Viguerie has yet to endorse Gillespie. And the Virginian is steamed at the national GOP establishment.
Irked by the party’s support for pork-barreling moderates such as Mississippi’s U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran against tea party candidates, Viguerie says “Conservatives should not give a dime to the National Republican Senatorial Committee.”
Larry Sabato’s “Crystal Ball” at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics continues to shine on Warner.
“We’ve had it as ‘Likely D’ since Gillespie entered. No change.” center spokesman Kyle Kondik told Watchdog.
Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, a Democratic strategist who blasted Terry McAuliffe as a “corporatist,” said he sees the same tendencies in Gillespie.
“Ed Gillespie calls himself a corporate consultant, but give me a break. That’s a nice way of saying you’re a lobbyist for the greedy,” Saunders told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
The “corporatist” rap resonates with lots of tea party Republicans, and independents, too.
Hill, a political novice, alluded to the problem Saturday. Before conceding to Gillespie, he declared, “I am the only candidate who can beat Mark Warner. He wouldn’t know what to do with me.”
Team Warner thinks it knows what to do with Gillespie. An undated photo of the GOP nominee palling around with Karl Rove — bête noir to tea partyers and Democrats alike — was already floating around as the final votes were tallied.
The headline: “Ed Gillespie — a Washington Insider With a Virginia Address.”
Virginians will see and hear a lot more of that in the months to come.
The question is, can multimillionaire Warner make it stick when he consistently votes to raise taxes, can’t make up his mind about the EPA’s job-killing coal regulations and sides with an increasingly unpopular president 98 percent of the time?
Kenric Ward is a national reporter for Watchdog.org and chief of the Virginia Bureau. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (571) 319-9824. @Kenricward