The Virginia Senate race may have just gotten interesting

The temperature in the Virginia Senate race – which hasn’t been making a lot of news in punditry circles – may have just gone up a few notches. It’s looking like former RNC chair Ed Gillespie is getting ready to throw his hat into the ring, with only a few weeks left until the filing deadline.

Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman, has told senior members of his party that he will challenge Senator Mark R. Warner of Virginia and announce his candidacy as early as next week, giving Republicans a top-tier candidate in what has become one of the nation’s most competitive swing states.

The bid by Mr. Gillespie, a longtime party operative turned lobbyist with ties to both Republican grass-roots and establishment wings, also underlines the intent of more mainstream Virginia Republicans to retake control of the party after a Tea Party-backed candidate lost the governorship.

Now, I know what some of you may be thinking here. Didn’t we just lose a clean sweep in Virginia?

Well, yes. the Democrats had a pretty good run there. And Mark Warner, the former Democrat Governor, is regarded as a very popular figure there. People might have reason to scoff at first glance, and their supporters at the Times are quick to begin piling on factors which they think will disqualify him for victory in the Old Dominion. (Hey… the guy was a lobbyist for Enron after all. Let’s not get too carried away here, eh?) But is it really such a far fetched idea? At Slate, Dave Weigel lays out some of the reasons why Gillespie might not be just throwing good money after bad.

Sure, in July, Warner had a 51 percent approval rating. But what’s happened since then? Free hint: It starts with an “O” and ends with an “bamacare.” Even the Republicans angry at Ken Cuccinelli for blowing the 2013 gubernatorial election believe that the first problems with the health care law closed the race from 10 to 3 points in a couple of weeks. They told me as much at Cuccinelli’s election night party; they have since been emboldened by the razor-thin result in one of Virginia’s open state Senate seats. A Republican’s within 10 votes of taking the seat held by incoming Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam. Already, even if he loses, that represents a 7-point swing toward the GOP in the district, compared with 2012’s Obama-Romney result.

Weigel’s theory is that Warner is definitely a solid, strong competitor with a substantial following and the built-in advantages of incumbency. But in 2014, Obamacare is offering a boost which will weaken the positions of even solidly safe Democrats to the same degree that Iraq knocked the wind out of the sails of shoe-in Republicans in 2006. If the pendulum has already begun to swing against O’care supporters like Warner in January, it may be moving fast enough to knock him off his pedestal in November, assuming the opponent can muster the resources to take the battle to him. And Gillespie certainly has that going for him. He’s a proven fundraiser, with substantial personal wealth which could be brought to bear as well.

It’s still too soon to pin Virginia up on the big map as a definite takeaway possibility for this year, but these latest developments make it one worth watching.