Former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie announced last week that he's running for Senate in Virginia to unseat Democrat Mark Warner. Gillespie was an aide to George W. Bush in the White House, and will join the ranks of longtime consultants and political operatives who decide to run for office themselves. Some of these bids are more successful than others.
"For every Rahm Emanuel — the political sage who dispensed advice to two presidents and won both a seat in Congress and the Chicago mayorship — there’s a Bill Daley, the ex-chief of staff to President Barack Obama who flopped as a candidate for Illinois governor last year," writes James Hohmann at Politico on Monday. To be a successful candidate, consultants need more than just political connections and an above-average understanding of polling data. It helps, for example, if the public likes the consultant's former boss.
As Cameron Joseph at The Hill points out, "Gillespie isn’t the only Bush alumni looking to be on the ballot this fall." Other contenders include Alaska Senate candidate Dan Sullivan, congressional candidates Elise Stefanik (New York) and Taylor Griffin (North Carolina), and West Virginia House candidate Charlotte Lane. Joseph notes that many of these candidates are choosing to run now because the public has warmed considerably to W. since he left office. Bush White House alumnus Sen. Rob Portman thinks a connection to the former president is now an asset in some races.
Newly-elected Virginia governor and former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe ultimately benefitted from his relationship from his former boss, Bill Clinton. Though McAuliffe was "castigated" for his role in the Clinton fundraising scandals, people care about not offending the Clintons, so people supported McAuliffe.
To be a successful candidate, it also helps to have your own name recognition, as Gillespie does. Rep. Tim Griffin, who was Gillespie’s research director at the RNC, told Politico, "This is somebody who has been on Meet the Press, This Week and the other shows more times than I can count. When you’re the RNC chairman, you’re a principal in and of yourself." (Even though he's an elected official himself now, it seems Griffin still uses the jargon of an aide.) McAuliffe was similarly well-known before he ran for governor.
And of course, success depends on who the consultant is running against. McAuliffe got lucky in that he went up against an extreme social conservative in a decidedly purple state. While voters were hesitant about McAuliffe's shady fundraising past, opponent Ken Cuccinelli's anti-gay views were even creepier.
Ultimately, consultants have to convince the public that they're not sleazy, a characterization that plagues all political operatives. In a competitive race against Warner, Gillespie has already been served with the stereotype. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee released a statement last week calling Gillespie "a career lobbyist with a partisan history of slash-and-burn politics that divides Virginians."