MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
We're going to hear now about one big race in the upcoming 2014 election cycle. Republicans need to pick up six seats to capture the Senate. They hadn't been counting on Virginia, where a popular incumbent senator, Democrat Mark Warner, is up for re-election. But Republicans there suddenly have a candidate they think can beat Warner.
Today in a Web-only video, Ed Gillespie announced his candidacy. He's a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and top White House aide to President George W. Bush. Gillespie said today that he wants to help Virginia's middle class and change policies to improve the lives of working families.
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BLOCK: NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea has the story of this Washington heavy-hitter who has never run for public office.
DON GONYEA, BYLINE: The Virginia U.S. Senate contest has long been considered in the safe category for Democrats. Peter Brown of the Quinnipiac poll says incumbent Senator Warner's voter approval rating topped 60 percent. He's a very well-liked senator. Before that, he was a very popular governor.
PETER BROWN: There are not a lot of incumbents in the country who have his job approval rating and his financial resources.
GONYEA: But, Brown says, Republican Ed Gillespie sees an opening.
BROWN: What's really going on here is a bet by Mr. Gillespie that this will be a big Republican year and that in that kind of environment, Democrats who were thought to be safe aren't so safe.
GONYEA: Meanwhile, the University of Virginia's Larry Sabato sees Gillespie's entry into the race this way.
LARRY SABATO: Oh, he is a heavy underdog. At the same time, his is a serious candidacy, certainly more serious than Mark Warner had ever expected to face.
GONYEA: Ed Gillespie started working in national politics for the Republican National Committee almost 30 years ago while still in his early 20s. He eventually became chairman of the RNC. He built up a huge rolodex along the way. He's worked on presidential campaigns and in the White House. The general public may know him best from his many appearances on TV.
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GONYEA: And don't overlook Gillespie's ability to raise money. He's been a highly successful lobbyist. He joined with Karl Rove to create the superPAC known as Crossroads GPS. Sabato says there'll be no surprise when it comes to the campaign's message.
SABATO: Gillespie's target will be Obama and Obamacare. And, of course, Warner has voted with Obama the vast majority of the time, and he voted for Obamacare. After all, all the Democrats did.
GONYEA: The Warner campaign, meanwhile, is still hiring staff and hasn't yet started running ads or doing big campaign-related events. The incumbent will play up his credentials as a Democratic moderate. It's an image that plays well in the battleground state of Virginia. Here he is in an interview on local radio WTOP.
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GONYEA: And look for Democrats to hit Gillespie hard for being a lobbyist and political insider. Already, the Warner campaign has sent out email fundraising pitches showing photos of Gillespie and Karl Rove, laughing and sharing a joke. Again, Larry Sabato.
SABATO: You could be certain that Mark Warner has already spent a great deal of money on opposition research.
GONYEA: Ed Gillespie's uphill campaign begins today in a Senate race that's now going to get a lot more attention than anyone expected.
Don Gonyea, NPR News.
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