A closer race that’s still Warner’s to lose

National Review has a fawning piece on Ed Gillespie that talks-up the challenger’s chance to strike fear into the hearts of Democrats and, possibly, even upset the mighty Mark Warner. It’s a rah-rah column, full of hope and almost completely devoid of analysis.

To do that, let’s get to the basics. Nate Silver’s forecast on the Virginia Senate race shows the incumbent enjoying a 98 percent likelihood of winning a second term. 538’s guess on the final result? Warner wins by 13 points.

So yes, it may be nice to run into Mr. Gillespie at the local Safeway (as Hillyer notes “from personal experience”). I ran into Jim Gilmore at the local 7-11 once. It made absolutely no difference in the 2008 Senate race.

But let’s assume there is substantial movement in the race. That’s very positive for Mr. Gillespie, and problematic for Mr. Warner. Last week, Paul Goldman and I looked at whether we had underestimated the Gillespie campaign’s rope-a-dope strategy and concluded there might actually be some merit to it. But even then, the obstacles facing him are big:

Gillespie’s biggest hardball political problem? Warner seemingly has made groupies out of a key GOP voting bloc. This is ironic since his surprisingly close challenge in 1996 to then-incumbent Sen. John Warner stalled because of a key Democratic vote bloc that was stubbornly loyal to the maverick Republican. Warner has worked hard for more than a decade to develop this limited but potentially crucial cross-over appeal. Normally, this bloc would prove hard for Gillespie to crack.

But in a protest year, even normally solid Warner voters may be looking past the candidates to send a message to Washington. If conservative talkers Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Mike Savage and Laura Ingraham are right, then Gillespie might yet benefit from a “populist” revolt despite being the anti-populist candidate. Go figure.

So we made some assumptions:

Let’s assume four things.

The anti-Gillespie attack fizzles in Northern Virginia.
The Republicans’ turnout out is 3 percent higher than their Democratic counterparts.
This conservative surge gives Gillespie 55 percent of the independent vote.
The anti-incumbent Sarvis voter decides to back the Republican to protest Warner.

All big ifs. The statistical bottom line: The Senate race would fall within the margin of polling error, although favoring Warner.

Twist the Quinnipiac numbers, pull them, prod them…and then leaven them with PPP polling data that shows Warner with a 13 point advantage, and you still end up with a race that is Warner’s to lose, even if the margin is very close.

Gillespie needs a wave to win. A big one that can overcome the Republican bloc that is in Warner’s column.

It’s not inconceivable such a wave could appear. But it depends upon conditions beyond the control of either Warner or Gillespie. One possible indication it may be time for Warner to move to slightly higher ground? North Carolina’s Senate race:

The Democratic incumbent in North Carolina, Kay Hagan, is pretty clearly ahead in the polls today (including in a CNN survey that was released on Sunday). However, two other states with vulnerable Democratic incumbents, Colorado and Alaska, have shifted toward Republicans. Perhaps if the Republican challenger Thom Tillis can equalize the ad spending in the Tar Heel State, the polls will show a more even race there as well.

It’s a point of interest, a possible indicator of larger changes that polls in Virginia (which have been far fewer in number) have not captured. Is this being optimistic? Certainly. Warner remains the favorite to win in November and, unlike some candidates of recent memory, he is very unlikely to do something stupid that will give Gillespie a clear shot.

But there is still a lot of campaigning to do between now and election day.

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