When Ed Gillespie decided to run against Democratic incumbent Mark Warner for a Virginia U.S. Senate seat, his bid was universally hailed as a long shot.
No one, though, thought the American Crossroads co-founder, former Republican National Committee chairman, and ex-lobbyist would have trouble attracting big money.
Conventional wisdom was wrong on both counts.
Gillespie—and Virginia’s U.S. Senate race—turned out to be the surprise of election night. Warner, a popular former governor who routinely led in polls, claimed victory by fewer than 17,000 votes, and Republican Gillespie has yet to concede. The election could be headed for a recount.
That Gillespie managed to mount such a serious challenge is particularly notable given his token support from outside groups like super PACs, nonprofits, and party committees. Gillespie’s surge leaves everyone wondering if he would have upset Warner had such groups invested in Virginia’s race like they did in other U.S. Senate contests from Alaska to North Carolina.
“Shame on them,” said Howard Leach, one of only six donors to the We Can Do Better PAC, a super PAC started to support Gillespie’s U.S. Senate bid. “They should have put some money in Ed’s race.”
Reported outside spending on North Carolina’s U.S. Senate race, the most expensive in history, was $81.2 million. The total spent on Virginia’s U.S. Senate race, which appears to be the closest in the country? A measly $2.6 million.
The Gillespie campaign and the National Republican Senatorial Committee did not respond to a request for comment. The Washington Post reported the NRSC spent $675,000 in Virginia, including $100,000 the weekend before the election.
Leach gave $25,000 to the We Can Do Better PAC, which raised $140,000, most of which it spent on radio ads in late October.
Leach, a businessman and investor, is a former campaign cash bundler for President George W. Bush, who later appointed him as U.S. ambassador to France. His relationship with Gillespie dates back to Gillespie’s time at the helm of the RNC. “I think very highly of Ed Gillespie as an individual,” Leach said, adding, “I wish that Ed had had more help.”
American Crossroads and its related nonprofit, Crossroads GPS, stayed out of the race entirely. At least two of Gillespie’s former lobbying clients ran ads in Senate races, but they didn’t show Gillespie any love.
The American Hospital Association’s political action committee ran U.S. Senate-focused ads in Kansas, Alaska, Mississippi, and Arkansas during the 2014 cycle, according to Kantar Media/CMAG, an advertising tracking service, but stayed out of Virginia. The National Association of Realtors Congressional Fund, a super PAC funded entirely by the National Association of Realtors, ran U.S. Senate-focused ads in Mississippi, Alaska, Kentucky, Michigan, and Kansas but also avoided the Senate race in Virginia. Neither organization responded to requests for comment on the election results.
The biggest outside spender in the Virginia race was the Virginia Progress PAC, a pro-Warner super PAC that spent $1.8 million and aired about 3,400 ads, or one out of every eight in the race, according media data. The National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action spent the most money pushing for Gillespie: $410,000, still less than a quarter as much as the Virginia Progress PAC, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Virginia “is a rich state for us in terms of members and supporters and donors and we felt that we could make an impact,” said Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the NRA. “And we could make an impact in a race where there was a clear distinction between Gillespie and Warner. Gillespie would be someone who would support us through thick and thin and Warner … hadn’t.”
The NRA paid for an August mailing, and it also made phone calls on Gillespie’s behalf in October.
Polls consistently showed Gillespie trailing well behind Warner. That and the possibility of the expense of playing in Virginia’s media market may have played a part in discouraging other outside groups and donors.
Warren Stephens, chairman and president of Little Rock, Arkansas-based Stephens Inc., also gave $25,000 to the We Can Do Better PAC. Stephens, a major political donor, gave more to other groups, including $2 million to American Crossroads, because Arkansas was one of Crossroads’ prime target states, he said. “I donated to [We Can Do Better PAC] because I’ve known Ed Gillespie a long time and he’s a nice man,” Stephens said. “I think I’m probably like everyone else. I didn’t think he had a chance.”
Stephens said he doesn’t remember who approached him to contribute to the We Can Do Better PAC, but no other group brought up Virginia’s U.S. Senate race when soliciting him.
Stephens said he won’t second-guess why outside groups, including American Crossroads, didn’t put money into the Virginia Senate race. Still, “when you have a good candidate maybe the lesson there is just go ahead and support him no matter what,” he said.
Steven Law, president of American Crossroads, was not available to be interviewed, a group spokesman said. Law personally contributed $1,000 to Gillespie’s campaign on Oct. 17, according to Federal Election Commission records. In an emailed statement, the group said, “Republicans benefited from an unprecedented late-breaking wave and an abundance of top-flight candidates like Ed Gillespie. The Senate battleground was so broad this year that we would have had to shift resources from other close races to try to take advantage of any new opportunities in the campaign’s closing days.”
Gillespie’s campaign reported raising about $6.8 million and spending slightly less than $6 million through Oct. 15. Warner’s campaign reported raising nearly $16.4 million and spending $13.7 million, more than twice as much as Gillespie.
The Gillespie campaign was also out-advertised. Warner ran more than one-half the TV ads in the race, according to the Center’s media analysis. Gillespie ran slightly more than one-third. The data shows no outside group aired a TV ad in the race after Oct. 11.
It’s impossible to know whether more outside spending would have tipped the race Gillespie’s way, but it seems likely people will write bigger checks for him next time.
“What he told me … was, I’ve studied the race and it’s winnable and I’ve never studied a race harder. I’m sitting there going, ‘OK, sure, Ed, there’s no way you can win the race, but I know you, I’m behind you, we’ll do something,’ ” Stephens said. “Lo and behold, when Ed Gillespie tells me something going forward, you’d better believe I’m going to listen to him.”