The last we heard from Ed Gillespie, the Republican Senate nominee was pulling his ads off television for lack of money in a tacit concession to the favored Democratic incumbent, Mark Warner.
But now it seems the former Republican National Committee chairman was merely marshaling his resources for a big final play: Defending the Washington Redskins and their increasingly divisive nickname. With the Redskins playing the Cowboys in a key intra-division matchup, Gillespie ran an ad on Monday Night Football knocking Warner for not standing up for the team against a proposal from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid aimed at forcing the NFL to strip Washington of its moniker.
Trailing by double digits in most polls, Gillespie figured that if he had to throw a Hail Mary, he might as well make it about football. But while the debate about the Redskins has become contentious inside the Beltway, it hasn't played a large role in the Senate race, and Warner doesn't give him much to attack. After all, it's not like Warner denounced the team or showed up at a protest outside the stadium; like most politicians, he merely dodged questions about a proposal that, despite the majority leader's support, isn't likely to go anywhere in the Senate and pales in importance to most of the other issues dominating the national debate.
"Why won't Warner fight the anti-Redskins bill?" a narrator intones in the ad. "Why won't he answer the question?"
The screen then cuts to Gillespie sitting at a kitchen table. "I'll answer the question," he says. "I'll oppose the anti-Redskins. Let's focus on creating jobs, raising take-home pay, and making our nation safer, and let the Redskins handle what to call their team."
Gillespie does have public opinion on his side, at least according to a September poll commissioned by ESPN that found 71 percent of respondents did not think the team should change its name. Opposition, however, had risen from the rare previous times that the question had been asked, indicating that the aggressive advocacy against the Redskins name over the last year has had an impact.
The Oneida Indian Nation is running the Change the Mascot campaign, which has succeeded in persuading some newspapers, broadcasters, and a fair amount of fans to stop using the term. Spokesman Joel Barkin said on Tuesday that Gillespie was "desperate" and "pandering," and he linked him to George Allen, the former Virginia senator who lost his bid for re-election in 2006 after referring to an Indian-American Democratic tracker as "macaca."
"The last time a Virginia Republican Senate nominee actively promoted a racial slur, voters rightly rejected him," Barkin said. "As with Senator George Allen, Ed Gillespie will likely lose the election promoting a dictionary-defined slur, but there will will likely be a place for him on Dan Snyder's payroll once this is over." (Snyder is the team's decidedly unpopular owner, who has presided over just one winning season in the last six and has not handled the Redskins controversy with much political dexterity.)
Warner spokesman David Turner cut straight to the pigskin puns:
"Down double digits, late in the fourth quarter, the Gillespie campaign threw an incomplete Hail Mary. Redskins fans know that Senator Warner didn't join any efforts to force a name change."
Beyond the obvious attempt to reach hardcore Washington fans tuning into see the team's rather stunning upset of the first-place Dallas Cowboys, Gillespie is gunning for the added attention and free media that comes with an unconventional ad. But he may not necessarily benefit from a focus on sports in the campaign's closing days: In a 2012 tweet unearthed by Politico earlier this year, Gillespie, a New Jersey native, confessed that he was originally a fan of D.C.'s hated rival, the Philadelphia Eagles.
Cue up the next TV ad, Senator Warner.